Over the past month, higher education has faced unprecedented challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Thousands of colleges and universities–large and small, two- and four-year–and more than 22 million students are impacted in the U.S. alone. Many institutions have closed their campuses, moved instruction online, changed their admissions timelines, and modified their financial aid policies; they are now contemplating whether to invite students back to campus in the fall. Decisions already made and decisions to come will likely have an immeasurable impact on all aspects of students’ college experience–their learning, their livelihoods, their housing, their future job prospects, and more. 

Since the onset of this crisis, many college administrators have had to make rapid decisions about the appropriate response, often with imperfect information. The pace of these decisions and the lack of a clear roadmap meant that administrators were unable to follow typical decision-making processes, hear from affected constituencies, and ensure transparency and responsiveness, where appropriate. Student voices have been largely absent from the decision-making process, despite the students themselves bearing a tremendous share of the burden of those decisions.

In some cases, students have publicly pushed back on their lack of representation in major decisions. For instance, two Amherst college students wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post about the lack of student voice in decision-making, acknowledging that while Amherst certainly needed to make significant changes to respond to the crisis, the ultimate decision to close was made “without consulting the students themselves.” Similarly, at UCLA, administrators reversed an initial decision to cancel spring 2020 commencement after intense student protest. These students, at some of the most selective institutions in our country, found other ways to make their voices heard. But, as is often the case, underrepresented students–lower-income students and first-generation students, and students of color–at selective and broad access institutions alike, may not have the same platforms and influence. Yet, these are the students who face the greatest challenges in light of this disruption. 

College and university administrators, despite their past actions, must intentionally and thoughtfully include students in the decisions to come, and must pay particular attention to voices of students who are disproportionately impacted. Below, we’ve identified a few best practices for administrators to consider as they plan for the summer and fall:

  • Collect feedback and source needs through formal and informal channels: Ask faculty and staff to request that students submit feedback on specific questions or issues during their normal daily interactions with students (via zoom polls, chat functions, etc.) and that faculty and staff summarize and submit that feedback to a central location. Identify a central email address for faculty, staff, and students to submit their feedback directly, like Rutgers University and Northern Virginia Community College have done. To gather information about the experience and needs of the students most likely challenged by pandemic-related changes, have advisors and other administrators take on caseloads of students for direct outreach. Collecting feedback through a variety of channels will help reach the most students, as these recommendations from Baylor University echo.
  • Designate an equity-focused administrator: Designate a senior administrator as an “equity advocate,” responsible for investigating the impacts on and representing the viewpoints of lower-income, underrepresented minority, and other students in policy decisions. Ensure that this viewpoint is represented in university decision-making by including this senior administrator in university task forces and seeking documented guidance, as provided by the University of California system’s Council of Chief Diversity Officers.
  • Include leaders of equity-focused student organizations in the decision-making process. In addition to involving the student government, intentionally engage with the leaders of student groups who represent lower-income students, first-generation students, and students of color. These students can represent the interests of their constituents and surface issues and ideas that may not be immediately apparent to administrators. For example, Indiana University student body presidential candidates organized a virtual town hall that focused on issues like financial insecurity, student employment, and technology access; issues that all students, but particularly lower-income and other underserved students, are facing. At the University of Michigan, the first generation student group set up a resource page and messaging group for ongoing communication during the crisis.
  • Elevate and support students’ grassroots efforts: At Middlebury College (and many other institutions since then), students launched a shareable spreadsheet for students to share their needs and community members to respond with available resources. Duke and Colorado State students, among others, generated petitions to advocate for future decisions, and Harvard students established a taskforce to centralize advocacy and resources from across the University.
  • Be responsive to nuances in the student experience: Despite having common attributes, students from similar backgrounds often have diverse and varying needs. Consider the student experience from multiple perspectives – by student major/discipline, job or work-study status, living situation, family structure, and more. For example, science labs have closed, forcing students to reconsider semester or years-long research projects. Many students with off-campus jobs may be out of work and need additional money in addition to their financial aid package. Students now living in a different time zone from their campus may have new challenges attending classes. 
  • Plan ahead and course correct:  Even if the pace of past decisions limited your ability to seek feedback, it is important to plan ahead for incorporating student voice into both rapid and expected decisions moving forward. Learn from the challenges that students have faced and incorporate those insights into future decision-making. Seek feedback from students now for decisions you expect in the future. 

Have more recommendations to share, or strategies that you’ve found to be successful? Please comment below.

Ithaka S+R’s surveys team is offering to field a COVID-19 student survey (covering the effectiveness of course formats, resources utilized, institutional communications, general wellness, and retention) at no cost for 20 institutions, with a nominal fee to cover costs if interest exceeds 20. Click here to learn more and sign up to participate.