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Scholarship Equity is Crucial to The Post-Pandemic College

Avatar By Matt Konrad

As COVID-19 vaccines roll out across the country and restrictions begin to lift, the world of higher education is preparing for a return to a “normal” school year in the fall – standardized tests, students on campus and a revival of college life as we’ve come to know it.  

But after a year in which the pandemic laid bare many of the academy’s struggles, blind spots and systemic inequities, it’s important to consider how the next “normal” can better serve students. Here’s what we think – and how we see private scholarships contributing to a more just and equitable post-pandemic college experience.

Low-Income and Underserved Students Lost Out the Most

College enrollment in fall 2020 took a precipitous dip, dropping by 3.6% over fall 2019. And the high school class of 2020 opted out of college in an unprecedented way, with nearly 22% fewer grads moving on to higher education in the fall.

Looking at these declines closer, it’s clear that the most significant effects impacted students from low-income and historically underserved populations. As NPR reported, “For graduates at high-poverty high schools there was a 32.6% decline in attending college, compared with a 16.4% decline for graduates of low-poverty schools.” In addition, enrollment at community colleges – which generally serve a larger population of underserved and nontraditional students — fell off a whopping 10%, losing 544,000 students year-over-year.

While the post-pandemic college may see enrollment numbers trend upward again next year, much of the damage has already been done. Students who skipped the 2020-21 school year will face an uphill road to continuing, especially if they faced job losses or illness during the pandemic. And with unemployment, food and housing insecurity, unavailable standardized testing and a lack of broadband access getting in the way, low-income high school students in the class of 2021 won’t have it easy when it comes to college, either.

In the words of Eric Waldo, Chief Access and Equity Programs Officer at Common App, “We’ve seen how the pandemic has really ravaged low income communities and communities of color, [with] higher unemployment rates, more COVID deaths,” he said. “So that sort of stress we know in some ways is dampening college expectations or college desire.”

Lower Enrollment, Higher Costs

Even without the pandemic, those low-income students would have also faced cost barriers as they worked toward a college degree. And now, in what threatens to become a vicious cycle, those cost barriers are getting even higher as schools raise tuition to make up for lost enrollment.

Florida, which hasn’t raised tuition at state schools since 2013, is considering doing just that statewide to counteract the enrollment shortfall; the Sun-Sentinel reports that other states are likely to follow suit.

“Students across the country could see tuition increases in the coming years as states try to make up budget deficits caused by the pandemic, said Michele Streeter, senior policy analyst for the Institute for College Access and Success, a non-profit organization that advocates for affordability and equity in higher education. Many states also enacted tuition hikes a decade ago, as the Great Recession created similar gaps in state tax revenue.”

The revenue crunch for colleges, of course, also means there’s less institutional aid to go around – and that means a bigger role for both federal aid programs and private scholarships.

Closing the Gap With Equitable Scholarship Opportunities

To fulfill that mission, scholarships and financial aid need to be designed, publicized and awarded with equity, diversity and inclusion in mind – something that hasn’t always been the case.

On a federal level, the FAFSA remains a vital gateway to student aid. And, as with college attendance, this year has seen the most precipitous decline in applications from low-income households. Overall, FAFSA completions are down by 9% over 2019 – but the drop for Title I Eligible low-income schools is twice that of non-Title I schools, and high-minority-population schools have seen 14% fewer submissions. (The Washington Post also reports that Black and Latinx students are far more likely to be selected for FAFSA verification, a complex and time-consuming process that often results in lost aid.)

In the realm of private scholarships, we have reported before on issues of inequity: “According to an analysis of the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study by Mark Kantrowitz, white students are about 1.5x as likely to win a scholarship as Black, Latinx, or Asian students. Students in the bottom income quartile also receive less than half the ‘other financial aid’ as students in the top income quartile.”

As the nation’s largest provider of private scholarships, we at Scholarship America have a unique opportunity to work toward correcting this imbalance – and we have made it an integral part of our mission to do so. We are partnering with Common App to connect more low-income, underserved and minority students with private scholarship dollars, and we are working with our thousands of partners to ensure that racial and economic equity are components of their scholarship programs.

We are also designing our own programs to address underserved communities by providing flexible and meaningful assistance, including the renewable and growing Dream Award and emergency grants for students impacted by the pandemic.

As students, schools and families look toward the next “normal” and deal with the long-term impacts of our COVID-19 year, it is vital that we provide equitable, inclusive and impactful private scholarship aid. Together, we can prevent a “lost generation,” and create a generation of college achievers instead.

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