Earlier this summer, Ithaka S+R began aggregating colleges’ plans for re-opening campuses in Fall 2020, with the goal of facilitating collaboration and planning across the sector. As of August 17th, we have reviewed and synthesized 95 institutional plans, including updates to those plans, into a single resource (click here to view). We are publishing the findings from our analysis of these plans in a series of blog posts, hosted on Ithaka S+R’s COVID-19 Fall Reopening Page. Our data collection captures comprehensive information about several aspects of institutional plans for reopening, with an emphasis on efforts to protect and promote equity.

In a previous blog post, we noted that while many institutions have put forth very detailed plans for resuming activities this fall, fewer institutions explicitly state how they have considered equity issues throughout the planning and implementation process. Those institutions that have incorporated equity into their plans often do so in specific areas of campus operations, such as targeting student financial aid to students who need it most and using campus facilities to support students’ residential and academic needs. Yet, other areas of plans—like, public health services and protections for vulnerable staff populations—mention equity less frequently. These omissions are concerning given the disproportionate impact that both the global pandemic and our national reckoning with systemic racism continue to have on underrepresented communities (both staff and students) in higher education. These omissions are also concerning in light of recent decisions by colleges to abruptly close campus after mere days or weeks of in-person activities, decisions which, at least in the short-run, will likely have the greatest impact on vulnerable students and staff.

In this blog post, we use our synthesis of institutions plans to identify the key plan elements that demonstrate an institutional commitment to equity. Throughout, we highlight strong institutional examples of equity considerations and discuss notable gaps in institutional responses to current circumstances. We organize our findings around four common areas of institutional plans: 

  1. Personal and public health services and safety; 
  2. Academic experiences and student success; 
  3. Financial supports and accommodations, and; 
  4. Responses to social and political context and events. 

We recognize that the colleges and universities included here are not representative of the higher education sector broadly. Many of the institutions we profile have the financial resources to support the specific equity measures mentioned, such as tuition cuts and direct financial assistance. These options may not be available for less wealthy institutions, many of which enroll large shares of underrepresented students. Nonetheless, we hope these examples are useful for institutions as plans for the fall continue to evolve. 

With COVID-19 case counts and institutional plans changing by the day, making equity a foundational part of the decision-making process for college operations is even more essential. The equity elements we outline below are relevant, regardless of whether institutions resume some, all, or no in-person activities this fall. Regardless of how they choose to resume activities this fall, institutions should adopt a holistic, comprehensive approach to promoting and protecting equity that meets the current moment.  

Considering Equity in Four Core Areas

Area 1: Personal and Public Health Services & Safety

As COVID-19 continues to surge across the country, perhaps the most pressing challenge facing colleges and universities is protecting the health and wellbeing of their respective campus communities, especially if large numbers of students have returned or will return to campus. As we discussed in an earlier blog post, institutions’ health and safety plans mostly focus on COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, quarantine and isolation, and the implementation of mitigation strategies, like social distancing, outlined by Center for Disease Control (CDC) and other public health authorities. 

Implementing robust plans for each of these elements is essential to an institution’s health and safety program, but not sufficient. The health ramifications of COVID-19 are wide-ranging and unevenly distributed. An equitable health and safety response requires institutions to address the racial health disparities of the pandemic, increase access to mental health services, and ensure that health protections extend beyond students to at-risk staff and community members.

Essential Element: Address racial health disparities in the COVID-19 pandemic

COVID-19 has thrown existing health and social inequities among communities of color into stark relief. Recent data suggest that Black and Hispanic residents across the country have been approximately three times as likely to become infected by COVID-19 as their white peers, and almost twice as likely to die from the disease. The vast majority of the 95 institutional plans that we reviewed articulate some approach to COVID-19 testing on campus, but only one institution—Indiana University-Bloomington—mentioned explicit efforts to address racial health disparities within its community. As about 15,000 Indiana students are Black or Hispanic, the university established the Pandemic Health Disparities Fund, which will support programs like, COVID-19 screening, mental health services, and student wellness programs for students of color. A ten-person committee, with faculty and staff in medicine, public health, psychology, and student services, will oversee the disbursement of the initial $1 million. Indiana’s approach is a strong example of the ways in which an institution can ensure equitable access to healthcare for its students. 

Essential Element: Increase access to mental health services

As discussed above, the majority of reopening plans focus on the physical welfare of their constituents. Yet, far fewer highlight an approach for supporting students’ psychological well-being through mental health services, a need that is likely far greater during this time of isolation and uncertainty. In fact, a recent CDC report highlighted the seriousness of students’ challenges in this area: one-quarter of respondents aged 18 to 24 said that they seriously contemplated suicide in the month of June. In this same survey, reports of anxiety and depression were significantly higher among Black and Hispanic responders, as well as essential workers and unpaid caregivers for adults. 

Brown University’s approach to supporting students’ mental health recognizes the COVID-19 pandemic has had disparate impacts on students based on family and community situations. A Brown University planning committee recommended that faculty undergo training to identify the signs of trauma that students may exhibit due to higher rates of family unemployment, illness, and death. Like several colleges, Lawrence University will offer all counseling services via telehealth throughout the fall semester, but the University has also rolled out a mobile care app designed to relieve symptoms of stress and anxiety, which is now freely available to all students. Easily accessible mental health programming will be all the more important as students face potential quarantine and isolation on campus, or remain at home for the duration of the semester.

Essential Element: Extend support and protection to at-risk faculty and staff

In most cases, institutions’ plans primarily articulate their approaches to managing students’ health, behavior, and needs. Yet, an institution’s community is not limited only to students, but also includes faculty, staff, and local community members, all of whom are essential to its success and well-being. While the majority of colleges and universities specify health and teaching accommodations for faculty, notably fewer lay out flexible provisions for staff, particularly the essential workers – facilities, housing, and dining services staff – of the campus community. Additionally, non-faculty staff who are more at-risk of contracting and/or dying from the disease (due to their race/ethnicity, age, underlying conditions, or family situations) may wish to seek work accommodations not explicitly addressed in the materials presented by institutions. Recent COVID-19 cases among workers at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill spurred a coalition of UNC housekeepers to deliver a petition for upgraded health and safety provisions for all staff. 

Emory University, which plans to meaningfully de-densify campus this fall, has enacted new policies to protect and support all benefits-eligible staff, including full-time contractors on contracts lasting at least 6 months. Effective July 2020, Emory provided these staff with a one-time bank of up to four weeks of COVID-19 Emory-paid leave. In addition, staff are eligible for up to three weeks of paid-leave for childcare. The University’s Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) offers emotional support for staff, including support sessions for families of frontline healthcare professionals. Despite these, and other efforts, to protect the workers who keep the campus running, no plans explicitly mention contingent staff or staff who work at, but are not directly employed by the institution. We recognize that the plans we reviewed may not articulate all the supports in place to protect faculty and staff, but institutions should prioritize and publicize these policies as a way to demonstrate their commitment to the physical and mental health of these vital members of their communities. 

Area 2: Academic Experiences and Student Success

Regardless of whether an institution plans to welcome students back to campus or not, all institutions are at least partially modifying their mode of instruction to meet health and safety provisions and support students who will be studying remotely in the fall. The rise of blended and distance learning presents new academic challenges for faculty and students alike, and may exacerbate existing inequities in the academic experience. Underpinning many of these challenges is inequitable access to technology and broadband internet, perpetuated by our country’s digital divide. To ensure that underrepresented students are retained and succeed in a blended or distance learning environment, institutions should bolster academic advising and support, prioritize efforts to build community among underrepresented students, and consider enhancing the flexibility of academic policies to account for ongoing disruptions facing students.

Essential Element: Bolster academic advising and support

Ithaka S+R recently conducted a student survey to understand students’ experiences during the pivot to remote learning this spring. Approximately one-fifth of survey respondents reported that they did not plan to re-enroll this fall; these students were almost twice as likely to want to hear more about academic advising than their counterparts who planned to re-enroll. Yet, only a small minority of institutions included in our analysis of Fall 2020 plans mentioned specific advising opportunities for the fall semester. 

When the University of South Carolina announced its plan for a hybrid fall semester, administrators encouraged all students to opt in to a “re-advising” summer program, designed to support students in navigating changes to course offerings and their impact on degree attainment. In addition, the university hired extra, temporary advising staff to ensure all students have access to advising opportunities throughout the fall, and implemented a program to help faculty identify and contact students who disengage with course activities this Fall. South Carolina’s multi-pronged approach to advising demonstrates several ways in which institutions can enhance existing academic support and increase contact with students.

Essential Element: Prioritize efforts to build community among underrepresented students

In a partially or fully remote environment, colleges and universities are likely to face new challenges related to fostering community and cultivating students’ sense of belonging. Even before the pandemic hit, there was evidence that first-generation and underrepresented minority students at four-year colleges were less likely to feel a sense of belonging compared to their peers. Feeling a sense of belonging can improve students’ mental health and improve their chances of graduating. Prioritizing efforts to build community among underrepresented students is an essential step to supporting equitable student outcomes for all students.

George Mason University provides a compelling example of how an institution can modify face-to-face belonging initiatives for underrepresented students into robust, virtual communities. In light of its plan for a hybrid fall semester, GMU converted its “Living Learning Communities”, where students live in cohorts and participate in academic and social activities together, to “Virtual Learning Communities”  (VLCs). VLCs create cohorts of students organized around common interests or experiences. Each VLC has a dedicated team of faculty members, professional staff, and student staff, and provides an opportunity for students to bond with peers, both in an academic and social context, and form mentor-mentee relationships. Several VLCs, including “The First,” a VLC for first-generation students, and the LGBTQ+ VLC, provide spaces for underrepresented students to connect with one another.

Essential Element: Enhance the flexibility of academic policies to support student outcomes

In Spring 2020, many institutions decided to expand pass/fail options to encourage course completion as students dealt with the rapid move to online instruction. Yet, the ongoing crisis continues to place external stresses on students that may impact their ability to pursue a full course load this fall.  According to Reach NY and Ed Trust’s new brief on reopening colleges and universities with equity, 80 percent of New York college students surveyed in May were concerned about being on track to graduate, and concerns were most acute among Black and Hispanic students. 

To support each students’ path to graduation, a handful of institutions reviewed in our analysis—nine out of 95—have modified academic requirements to be amenable to students’ current needs. One example is St. Mary’s College of Maryland, a public liberal arts college, which has extended its pass/fail grading option for the duration of the 2020-2021 academic year. Prior to the pandemic, St. Mary’s employed a flexible transfer policy, which enables students to transfer credits from courses taken from another institution while on leave of absence from St. Mary’s or while currently enrolled at St. Mary’s. These two policies, in combination, may help provide students with multiple avenues to stay on track to degree attainment. Similarly, Amherst College has modified a number of its academic policies, including changes to course load requirements and grading policies, to encourage student academic engagement. Amherst is encouraging students to take three classes per semester, as opposed to the standard four, and will allow students to graduate with anywhere between six and nine courses taken in their senior year. In addition, Amherst has increased by three the number of pass/fail options, or “Flexible Grading Options” each student can use over the course of their degree. 

Area 3: Financial Supports and Accommodations

As has been well documented, the economic ramifications of the pandemic have hit millions of Americans. UNCF’s (the United Negro College Fund) recent Student Pulse Survey on students’ educational plans for Fall 2020 highlights the depths of financial hardship. Fifty-four percent of students surveyed, all of whom attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), reported experiencing financial challenges as a result of COVID-19. Twenty-two percent report that their financial stability has significantly declined. Compounding the effects of the recession are declines in access to basic needs, including housing and food, and technology, exacerbated by current restrictions on university operations. To promote equitable assistance for students, colleges and universities should focus on targeted, monetary assistance and in-kind provisions for students with the greatest need.

Essential Element: Ensure students’ basic needs are met

One of the most concerning findings from Ithaka S+R’s spring student survey was that 30 to 40 percent of respondents noted some level of concern regarding food and housing. Almost double the share of students of color reported concerns relative to their white peers, and notable differences were found between Pell-eligible and non-Pell-eligible students. Relative to other equity considerations, basic needs were frequently mentioned by institutions included in our review of institutional plans, with just under half mentioning provisions for students facing housing- or food-insecurity. Despite their recent move to a fully remote semester, Stanford University will only offer housing for students with special circumstances: those experiencing homelessness or unsafe conditions; or students with home environments that prevent them from participating in a remote learning environment. The University of Chicago, which is welcoming back the majority of students to campus, offers an aid package with increased funding to cover incremental off-campus rental costs and dining expenses. Dillard University offers a Daily Bread Food Pantry program for anyone on campus experiencing food insecurity. Recognizing the pandemic’s economic impact on New Orleans, Dillard will extend the Pantry service this fall to its surrounding community. These examples illustrate the importance of basic needs considerations, regardless of an institution’s chosen modality for the fall semester.

Essential Element: Guarantee equitable access to technology for all students

The rise of blended and distance learning has made access to technology essential to a student’s ability to continue their education, and national digital divide means that about one-quarter of American households lack access to either a computer or broadband internet. Several colleges and universities included in our initiative have found innovative ways to expand access to students in need. With the fall semester beginning remotely, the University of California-Berkeley launched a Student Technology Equity Program, which allocates $4.6 million in support for students who lack reliable laptops, WiFi, and other technology. This program provides 3,300 laptops and 800 Wifi hotspots to students. Two Atlanta HBCUs, Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College, have secured partnerships with private technology providers to expand technological access to their respective students. Clark Atlanta, for instance, partnered with Dell to provide computers for 4,000 students, and when Morehouse College decided to go fully remote, the institution partnered with Microsoft to provide tablet computers for all undergraduate students.

Essential Element: Target financial assistance to the students with greatest need 

Perhaps unsurprisingly given their relative wealth, the institutions’ plans we reviewed most often addressed equity through financial aid. Of the 95 institutions whose plans we synthesized, 60 mention at least one form of financial aid provided to students in response to the pandemic. Yet, the means by which institutions chose to provide additional financial assistance varies significantly: from tuition and fee reductions, to CARES act funds, emergency aid, new scholarship programs, and adjustments to financial aid packages. 

Irrespective of the method for delivering financial assistance, the most important outcome is that students with the greatest need receive ample, targeted support. Wellesley College has and continues to offer targeted financial aid through a variety of sources including the CARES Act emergency student financial aid grants, a dedicated emergency fund for students administered by the Wellesley Students’ Aid Society, and a suspension of institutional loan payments. Several institutions, like Bentley College, added a special COVID-19 application to aid packages for those whose financial standing had been impacted by the pandemic, a measure that may appeal to institutions less able to cover across-the-board tuition and fee reductions. 

Area 4: Responses to Social and Political Context and Events

The vast majority of fall plans focus specifically on the global pandemic and its ramifications, and appropriately prioritize health and safety measures to mitigate community spread and keep students and staff safe. Yet, we can’t disaggregate the effects of the two, concurrent pandemics – COVID-19 and our national reckoning with systemic racism – on our communities and students. We also recognize that each institution operates in its own local and political context. State guidelines for resuming activities and reopening institutions of higher education differ, and institutions are receiving varying levels of support from state and local officials. Against the backdrop of these different contexts, institutions should focus on how they can prioritize equity and promote anti-racism within their communities. 

Spelman College’s plans demonstrate how an institution can lead with equity amidst shifting health and political conditions. In its initial planning documentation, Spelman explicitly stated the centrality of equity to its plans, acknowledging the disproportionate impact of this crisis on the African American community. In communicating plans to change course and conduct a fully remote fall semester, President Mary Schmidt Campbell cited the worsening public health crisis in Atlanta, risk of hospital overload, lack of sufficient contact tracing in Georgia, and conflicting state and local public policy as primary factors for the decision. In response to these changing circumstances, President Campbell reiterated several equity-driven accommodations for students, including: the creation of success study groups for all students, assigned advisors for each student in their academic area of interest, a 10 percent tuition discount, a 40 percent reduction in fees, a one-time housing scholarship, and expanded mental health tele-health services for all students. Spelman’s course of action highlights how an institution might prioritize community safety and equity over competing political and institutional interests.

Concluding Remarks

Colleges and universities face a myriad of unprecedented challenges to their operations in the 2020-2021 academic year. Perhaps appropriately, institutional plans published throughout the summer prioritized health and safety, logistics, and contingency planning. Yet, the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic may impede institutions’ progress toward greater equity of access and success. Moreover, the nation’s increased awareness of racism and inequality necessitates that institutions double down on efforts to promote and protect equity for community members who are disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 and racial injustice. 

Given the crippling health and economic impacts of the current crisis, equity should be a driving force as institutions continue to iterate on plans for the fall semester. Prioritizing equity in all areas of planning—health and safety, academics, finances, and operations—will be crucial to ensuring success. The institutional examples we provide here demonstrate meaningful efforts on the part of institutions to incorporate equity into plans for the fall, but the effects of these decisions are still unknown. As the fall progresses, it is incumbent on the higher education community to track the effectiveness of these efforts to promote equity and act quickly to address gaps along the way.