Racial Disparities in Higher Education Increased During COVID-19 Pandemic: Report

Temple University's Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice tracked students' basic needs insecurity and barriers they encountered during the pandemic.
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Published on October 9, 2023
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  • A new report from The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University explores how race and ethnicity impacted students' college experiences during the pandemic.
  • The pandemic intensified students' basic needs insecurity and increased racial and ethnic disparities in higher education, according to the report.
  • The report recommends systemic changes are needed to reduce barriers that students face to be successful in college.

A new report from The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University examines how college experiences during the pandemic varied by students' race and ethnicity.

Higher education is essential for creating a more equitable, prosperous, civic-minded, and healthy society, researchers said in the report. Yet, there remain disparities in access and success in higher education based on race and ethnicity,

Racist policies and structural barriers mean that not all students have equal opportunities to attain an education and succeed in college. These disparities were further magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report specifically considers students' basic needs security, defined by The Hope Center as access to the minimum requirements that one's body and society require of them to function, including:

  • Enough food
  • Safe housing to sleep, study, cook, and shower
  • Technology and reliable transportation
  • Healthcare
  • Personal hygiene resources
  • Childcare needs

The data the report uses comes from the fall 2020 #RealCollege Survey, an annual assessment by The Hope Center of students' basic needs across the country. Almost 200,000 students completed the survey, hailing from 202 colleges and universities from 42 different states.

Additionally, data was used from 23 different focus groups, four of which were convened at the start of the pandemic, with responses from 140 students from three community colleges, two located in Northern California and one in South Carolina.

The survey data found that students' college experiences varied widely based on race and ethnicity:

  • The rates of basic needs insecurity were the highest among Indigenous, Native American, and Black students.
  • Students who identified as Pacific Islander or Indigenous had the most challenges accessing the internet or a computer.
  • Seven in 10 students who identified as Indigenous, Native American, Pacific Islander, and Black and were employed also had basic needs insecurity.
  • Eight in 10 students who identified as Indigenous or Native American had basic needs insecurity despite receiving a Pell Grant.
  • Indigenous women reported the highest rates of anxiety and depression.
  • Among students who had basic needs insecurity, those who identified as Southeast Asian, white, and Asian American were the least likely to use supports, while those who identified as Indigenous, Native American, and Black were the most likely to use supports.

Higher education is an essential part of the nation's collective and individual economic prosperity, but the legacy of systemic and structural racism has prevented systemically marginalized students from a fair shot at obtaining a college degree or credential, graduating without or managing their student debt, and finding a good job, the report read.

Unequal access to postsecondary credentials contributes to growing economic inequality and stands at odds with the American ideals of equality and opportunity.

The report highlighted common barriers that students shared in the focus groups. Access to technology, basic needs insecurities including food and housing, restricted access to support on campus, and mental health were all obstacles students faced during the pandemic.

The pandemic drove a sharp decline in enrollment and completion rates, with students from minoritized racial and ethnic groups disproportionately affected, the report read. ... While these challenges existed prior to the pandemic, the pandemic exacerbated these issues and furthered the racial and ethnic disparities in higher education.

The report also provided some recommendations for federal and state policymakers, as well as for college administrators, faculty, and staff to help students reach their full potential.

Recommendations include:

  • Expanding funding at institutions that serve a large population of minority students including historically Black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, and minority-serving institutions
  • Increasing eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for college students
  • Creating affordable housing programs for students
  • Opposing anti-diversity legislation
  • Lowering the cost of college
  • Making existing emergency aid programs more accessible