Addressing Equity Concerns as College Instruction Goes Remote

By Juana H. Sánchez -

As the COVID-19 outbreak accelerates across the U.S., colleges and universities must continue to assess their crisis response efforts. In the wake of this unprecedented global pandemic, HCM Strategists is launching a blog series to explore a range of issues facing the field of education. Additionally, our staff will identify emerging policy ideas and practices, and implications for leaders working across government, postsecondary and K-12 education. 

When it became evident that the coronavirus pandemic would hit home, U.S. colleges and universities acted swiftly to keep their campus communities safe. With the spring 2020 term in full swing, institutions moved quickly to brace technology systems and faculty for the jump to remote instruction. This mid-stream shift was truly seismic, and we are just beginning to understand its ripple effects. Most institutions made great sacrifices to road test technology systems, ramp up faculty training and devise new guidelines for remote instruction to minimize learning interruptions. Yet, despite their best efforts to maintain high-quality instruction, the shift to remote learning has highlighted the inequities that low-income students are facing. 

First, institutions are wrestling with the reality of the digital divide. Not every student has access to essential technologies for remote instruction. Moreover, many low-income students lack reliable access to the internet at home, which can be more prevalent in rural areas. As colleges close campus libraries and computer labs, and more municipalities and states institute “shelter in place” orders, these students have even less access to digital learning. Also concerning is the lack of access for students with disabilities–including those who require adaptive technology. These students may not be able to make the transition to remote instruction easily or quickly.

Second, remote instruction is revealing the complexities of students’ lives, which the pandemic continues to impact in several ways. In some cases, faculty are getting a literal peek into students’ home lives as they roll-out video conferencing sessions. Some students do not have adequate study space at home, are couch surfing after losing their on-campus housing or are otherwise experiencing housing instability. Parenting students may now be juggling their college coursework with the responsibilities of homeschooling, as K-12 schools and childcare centers across the country shut down. More students are also stepping into new caregiver roles to assist older adults who are particularly vulnerable. Adding to this, students may even find themselves jobless overnight as employers–including colleges themselves–close operations. 

Third, even if students are spared from such extremes, the ongoing stress of life under quarantine and the uncertainties that accompany it will certainly impact academic performance. Course content and assignments may feel increasingly esoteric and irrelevant. The emotional fatigue of coping may leave students and faculty mentally exhausted and unable to focus on academics. 

Without immediate action, postsecondary leaders should anticipate that many of their students are simply not positioned to complete the Spring 2020 term successfully. Rather than hope for a return to normal, institutions must respond with agility and creativity as they have done in other crises. Here, HCM spotlights four emergency adjustments to academic and financial aid policies that higher education institutions, systems leaders and SHEEOs across the country are making in order to help students complete the Spring 2020 term and persist through to the next academic year.

1) Extend no-penalty windows for dropping courses – Given these unique circumstances, students may need to reduce their course load to improve their likelihood for success. After experiencing the remote instruction format, students may also decide that they no longer wish to take a particular course this term. Institutions can grant students more flexibility to drop courses without penalty, which is typically only an option at the start of a term. As part of its COVID-19 response strategy, the College of Letters & Sciences at UC Berkeley extended its no-penalty drop window from February 12th to May 6th, after the end of instruction. Because this will be treated as a drop instead of an elective course withdrawal, students will not receive the usual transcript notation or have these drops count against their academic progress. At a systems level, the University of Louisiana issued guidelines on extending withdrawal dates and petition processes to ensure consistency of academic policies for students enrolled across its nine member institutions. 

2) Grant students greater flexibility with alternative grading options – Many institutions are embracing alternatives to letter grades and giving students time to decide which is best for them. Under normal circumstances, students must opt into alternative grading options (e.g., “Pass”/”No Pass”) at the start of the term. The Texas A&M University System has given students until April 28th to opt into a “Satisfactory”/”Unsatisfactory” grading option. Texas A&M also decided that neither “U” nor “F” grades will be factored into GPA calculations. Penn State is going further, giving students the option to switch to alternative grading after receiving a letter grade at the end of the term.

Concerns have been raised that alternative grading may harm students down the road. For instance, alternative grades are not always recognized by programs of study, applied for credit when a student transfers to another institution or counted in graduate and professional school admissions. Furthermore, there are justified concerns that first-generation college students may not understand these potential drawbacks of alternative grades. UC Berkeley is addressing these concerns by making alternative grades the default option for all students and requiring all UC Berkeley programs of study to count these grades toward graduation requirements. Berkeley will also include a transcript notation to explain these alternative grades to future educational institutions and employers. 

SHEEOs and systems offices can provide further assurance that courses with alternative grading will be accepted for transfer. For example, the Virginia Community College System is working with the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia to ensure that Spring 2020 courses with alternative grades are accepted for transfer at four-year institutions in the state. 

Another option that institutions can consider is using “Incomplete” grades more liberally, which would give students and faculty additional time to identify suitable options for students to make up missing assignments. This may be particularly useful for courses that require concurrent labs, field work or other demonstrated application of content that is not possible in a remote format. The University of Texas System is advising faculty to use the Incomplete grading option when it is impractical or unsafe to offer lab work remotely. 

3) Adjust Satisfactory Academic Progress thresholds for financial aid eligibility – As they consider these changes, institutions should also review their financial aid eligibility requirements to identify where they may need to make parallel adjustments. The federal government requires that students make Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) each term in order to receive federal student aid. This includes meeting both minimum qualitative standards (i.e. maintaining a 2.0 GPA) and minimum quantitative standards (i.e. completing program requirements within 150% time).

Beyond these minimum standards, however, institutions do have some discretion in determining who is flagged for academic probation, as well as when to revoke or reinstate financial aid. Institutions can adjust their SAP policies to align with their Spring 2020 emergency grading and course withdrawal policies. Similarly, institutions can grant more leniency to students who are already on academic probation to prevent these students from losing aid at the conclusion of the term. Such adjustments would enable institutions to respond more quickly to a larger number of students than would be possible through an existing appeals process. 

It is important to note that the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act–which was signed into law last week–will provide some additional flexibility to help students maintain aid. Institutions will be able to exclude academic terms impacted by COVID-19 in the calculation of a student’s SAP. In addition, these terms will not be counted against a student’s total terms of federal Pell grant eligibility. Lastly, the new law grants the U.S. Department of Education the authority to waive repayment of federal student aid for students who have to withdraw from the term altogether.

4) Permit out-of-state students to maintain residency for in-state tuition – Finally, public institutions might consider temporary adjustments to state residency policies in order to minimize interruptions to students’ enrollment. As campuses closed student housing, many out-of-state students had to return home. It is not yet clear when students will be able to return to campus, or if on-campus housing will be available for the next academic term. Because leaving the state for an extended period of time can affect a students’ state residency classification, the Ohio Department of Higher Education issued guidance to clarify the many ways that students can retain state residency during this time. With growing concerns over affordability, ensuring access to in-state tuition can make a big difference in retaining students. 

These are just some of the institutional policy responses to COVID-19 that we have seen emerge across the country. How else are postsecondary institutions and states responding? Head over to Twitter to share your insights – you can Tweet at us at @HCMStrat and follow the conversation under the hashtags #EdAfterCOVID19 and #PromisingPolicy.

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