Increasing Access for Underserved Students During COVID-19

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Campuses are closed. Classes are held online. For most college students, the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered their lives and how they learn.

But not all students are facing the same day-to-day challenges. While some are dealing with increased school stress or unstable internet connections, others are struggling to secure housing or afford a laptop. The coronavirus outbreak has both increased and magnified the hardships faced by underserved students.

The question, then, becomes this: How can schools help underserved student populations achieve academic success, particularly during the ongoing pandemic? To answer this, we spoke with assistant professor and expert on race and systemic oppression Deniece Dortch.

Interview With Deniece Dortch, Ph.D.

Portrait of Deniece Dortch, Ph.D.

Deniece Dortch, Ph.D.

Deniece Dortch is an assistant professor at George Washington University, where her research and teaching grapples with systemic oppression across multiple axes. She uses critical phenomenological approaches to understand how African American undergraduate and graduate students experience and respond to race and racism at predominantly white institutions of higher education.

What were some of the challenges underserved students faced before COVID-19, and how has the pandemic accentuated these challenges?

Before the coronavirus pandemic, underserved students faced food and housing insecurity, and some were even coming from physically unsafe neighborhoods. The pandemic has accentuated these challenges by forcing them to abruptly return to these environments without the benefit of proper support structures.

Are there certain underserved student populations who are facing unique or more severe challenges?

Yes — these are the students coming from neighborhoods where there are food deserts, or who may be housing insecure. What the pandemic has done is highlight already existing disparities within our community.

Campus housing provides access to meals, shelter, and the technology students need to do their schoolwork and live their lives. Without these basic necessities, completing academic tasks is nearly impossible.

From an academic and psychological standpoint, do you feel that underserved student populations are getting the support they need remotely?

No, I don't. While support is going to look different for each student, academically students must have the appropriate infrastructure to support their learning — meaning it's imperative they have access to the internet so they can participate in emergency remote learning.

“The coronavirus outbreak has exacerbated feelings of isolation for students who already feel tokenized, marginalized, and alienated … ”

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Students who live in rural areas where Wi-Fi is sparse or unstable may experience tremendous difficulty completing schoolwork and joining online class sessions. Even poor weather conditions can hamper students' ability to attend classes.

Students are also expected to have laptops and/or tablets, but the truth is that many students borrow this equipment from libraries. Without access to these essential items, students are unable to complete assignments, participate in class discussions, or perform other activities that promote learning and engagement.

Psychologically, many students of color come from collectivist communities and therefore learn better when they are together. The coronavirus outbreak has exacerbated feelings of isolation for students who already feel tokenized, marginalized, and alienated within their respective academic environments, which could make learning even more challenging than it was prior to the pandemic.

There may also be students for whom their university has become a safe haven. In that sense, having to return home — where a student may be experiencing domestic abuse or other forms of violence — can have both physical and psychological effects on that student's psyche.

What are some of the ways higher education institutions can help minority, underserved, and at-risk students be successful at this time?

I believe there are several steps universities can take right now to support students.

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    Increase student access to health and wellness resources. In other words, schools should do more than just send out an email with a list of resources for students; we should be calling students and asking how we can support them. It's important for us to hear directly from students what they need, rather than assuming we already know.
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    Provide students with additional technological resources. For students who do not own laptops, tablets, or other necessary class equipment, give them the option to borrow these tools on a semester-by-semester basis.
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    For students who do not have reliable access to the internet, download resources on a thumb drive and mail it to students. Alternatively, schools can print out required materials and mail the hard copies to students. This way, all students can complete their assignments on time.
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    Offer emergency funds to students who can't afford basic necessities, such as food, housing, and healthcare.

What tools, strategies, or support systems would you suggest for underserved students struggling to learn remotely?

Students need to begin by requesting assistance. There is no shame in asking for help. No one has it together 100% of the time.

“Seek the counsel of someone you trust to help you process what is happening and devise an action plan.“

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Reach out to a faculty member or administrator and let them know you're struggling financially, emotionally, physically, and/or academically. Seek the counsel of someone you trust to help you process what is happening and devise an action plan.

Remember that your professors are not your adversaries. We may not be your friends, but we're certainly not your enemies. It is not now, nor has it ever been, you versus us.

We professors are here to support your success and foster a positive learning environment. We have to co-create this learning space, and we can only do that if you tell us what you need.

If campuses remain closed in the fall, how can minority and underserved student populations better prepare for remote learning?

First, students should schedule meetings with their advisors early on in the semester.

Secondly, we must recognize the difference between emergency remote teaching and online learning. Emergency remote teaching is what is happening right now. Faculty have had very little time to move their face-to-face courses to an online platform. Both the design method and pedagogical practice are different from that for a course that was always slated for online delivery.

That said, the assumption is that faculty will have lots of time (i.e., an entire summer) to prepare to augment their in-person classes to online practice, which is untrue. At this point, institutions have little to no idea if they'll open back up in the fall, with most taking a wait-and-see approach.

But this approach puts faculty in a precarious position. Do we prepare our courses for both online and face-to-face formats? If so, then we'd have to do double the work in the same amount of time, which is an enormous challenge. Ultimately, faculty may not be as prepared for remote teaching come fall.

Do you believe the pandemic will affect minority student enrollment or re-enrollment in the fall?

Yes, I do. Many students rely on scholarships, assistantships, fellowships, and grants to pay for their education. With schools slashing their budgets and high-ranking officials taking pay cuts, institutions will be operating with fewer resources and may choose to engage in drastic cost-saving measures. As a result, students may decide to attend institutions where they are not significantly impacted by these changes.

“[S]tudents who do not prefer to engage in remote teaching may choose to defer their admittance for a year and not re-enroll straight away.”

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Moreover, students who do not prefer to engage in remote teaching may choose to defer their admittance for a year and not re-enroll straight away. Similarly, students who have important obligations, such as those who are primary caretakers at home, may decide that those responsibilities take precedence over their education.

What do you believe will be some of the long-term educational consequences of this pandemic? And how will these consequences affect underserved students?

Individuals who were struggling financially, physically, and/or psychologically before the pandemic may take longer to recover, or may not recover at all.

Additionally, if a student must choose between going into more debt for school or taking care of their family, they may very well elect the latter. The answer to the age-old question, "Is going to college worth the money?" has become even more complicated due to the pandemic.

Is there anything else you want to touch on that we haven't discussed?

The only other thing I would say is that admission decisions could go one of two ways.

  • Scenario 1: Due to the economic downturn, institutions will begin to think differently about admission decisions and rely more on holistic metrics. This practice can ultimately help mitigate bias and may even benefit students who have historically been negatively impacted by the standardized testing requirement.
  • Scenario 2: Schools will place a stronghold on standardized tests, admitting only applicants with certain scores. Dwindling resources could also be the excuse institutions use to justify their admission decisions, causing them to potentially miss out on quality students.