(Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash)

When A Crisis Exposes Our Digital Divide

A Wake-Up Call on Inequity

Nearly one out of four undergraduates at Rutgers University-Newark either lacks high-speed access to the Internet or has no home computer at all. For Nancy Cantor, the university’s chancellor, data like these bring into sharp relief the digital and societal divides that challenge us as we respond to a disruptive event like the spread of COVID-19.

These systemic inequities — which are often associated with race, class, and citizenship status — artificially constrain talented students, Cantor says. That, in turn, constrains universities as engines of social mobility.

More than half of her university’s students are eligible for Pell Grants. And Cantor worries, too, about how housing and food insecurity can “overtake the ability of individuals to flexibly respond to a changing educational landscape.”

On the flip side, Cantor says she’d like to think the current disruption presents opportunities for universities to directly confront the repercussions of society’s divides. Universities like hers are “anchor institutions” in communities, she says, and as such can be leaders in leveling the playing field.

“Times of disruption bring reality into focus,” Cantor says, “and along with that wake-up call comes the chance to be change-makers.”

Deal Breakers and New Battles

This week our former Chronicle of Higher Ed colleague Goldie Blumenstyk wrote about how the coronavirus may be the type of black-swan event that fundamentally shifts higher education. (John Katzman told her: “Only idiots would survive this experience and learn nothing.”)

So we asked a bunch of smart thinkers on higher ed to tell us what their biggest worry is about how the spring of 2020 is shifting universities’ business or teaching models — or even their roles in society. We also wanted to hear about what they see as the greatest opportunity.

Several, like Cantor, talked about this moment as presenting a clear equity imperative. Here are some of the other issues they raised:

  • Adult students could have a hard time finishing in-person programs and training when they start back up. Jane Oates, the president of WorkingNation, says that community college students often have a limited window to complete courses because of child care and other life demands. “Having to extend that time frame because of suspended classes could be a deal-breaker.”
  • Colleges may end up with a new kind of legislative battle. Once colleges find a way to conduct all instruction online, even temporarily, they could start having to defend the need for bricks-and-mortar education at all, says F. King Alexander, the outgoing president of Louisiana State University and the soon-to-be president of Oregon State University. He thinks some state policymakers will be likely to ask a whole new set of questions about the value of face-to-face learning.

— Sara Hebel

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Moving Out

Like many students across the country, Jade Mehrtens, a sophomore at West Chester University in Pennsylvania, has had a lot of questions since her school extended its spring break to give professors time to move their classes online for the rest of the semester. The university told students it will allow them to return to campus in small groups to collect items from their dorms, but the schedule will be announced later.

For now, Jade and her friends are wondering when they’ll be able to collect their things and wear something outside of the few outfits they packed for their original shorter spring break. With little communication coming from the university so far, she has some other questions:

  • If she can refill a prescription antidepressant that she gets at a reduced rate through the university and if there will be alternatives to the free weekly group therapy sessions she has attended for the past year.
  • What she’ll do to earn money for the rest of the semester to help pay for tuition, books, and extra expenses now that she can’t go to her campus job.
  • When and how the university will reimburse students for their housing and meal plans for the rest of the semester.

Across the country, colleges are encouraging and sometimes forcing students to leave on short timelines:

  • Yale University will pay for travel accommodations for students on financial aid returning home and reimburse students for part of their on-campus housing bills.
  • See this piece from the Harvard Crimson about how the school’s announcement for students to leave within a few days affected first-generation and low-income students.

There’s more from Zipporah in this week’s First Gen newsletter:

“As I read Twitter threads and spoke to students on other campuses I was reminded of the uncomfortable truth that students like us have to contend with: we’re an afterthought at our institutions.”

— Andrea Klick

From the Experts

When all hell breaks loose, we’re reminded that one thing universities have is experts on everything under the sun. The Conversation provides a platform to share that expertise with the rest of us. A couple of highlights from this week:

“So yes, even if every person on Earth eventually comes down with COVID-19, there are real benefits to making sure it doesn’t all happen in the next few weeks.”

— Matthew McQueen, University of Colorado at Boulder on flattening the curve

Our blood supply chain is stunningly complex. It requires altruistic donations, collection, testing, processing and distribution to hospitals and medical centers. All along the way, the coronavirus can disrupt any of these essential steps. If donors are ill, they cannot donate; if the staff is ill, they cannot collect, test and process. If our health care workers are compromised, they cannot transfuse.”

— Anna Nagurney, University of Massachusetts at Amherst on our fragile blood supply

And even the non-scientists can offer us insight this week. Here’s Joel Christensen, a classics scholar at Brandeis on what the Greek epics remind us about leadership and plagues:

“Plague stories provide settings where fate pushes human organization to the limit. Human leaders are almost always crucial to the causal sequence, as Zeus observes in Homer’s ‘Odyssey,’ saying, as I’ve translated it, ‘Humans are always blaming the gods for their suffering / but they experience pain beyond their fate because of their own recklessness.'”

Spotlight

No Place to Hide: Colleges Track Students, Everywhere

Schools use tech to follow students online, on the quad, and in the football stadium.

How Purdue University’s President Froze Tuition

Mitch Daniels has frozen Purdue’s tuition — at less than $10,000 — for seven straight years.

You’re Stuck Inside

Now that many people are working and taking classes remotely, it’s the perfect time for a Netflix binge. Here are some of our recommendations to get through all that time you’ll be spending on your couch.

Andrea: For fans of Love Is Blind: Check out The Circle. It’s a reality competition show where people living in isolated apartments only chat through social media and compete to be the most popular person in the house and win $100,000. It sounds ridiculous (and oddly similar to this whole quarantine situation) but that’s exactly why it’s great.

Scott: All I watch anymore are Nordic noir shows with subtitles. A couple to try:

  • Occupied — a near future where Norway is taken over by Russians intent to control oil production.
  • Trapped — a dismembered body is found in a fjord outside a small Icelandic town.
  • Nobel — A little bit House of Cards, but with Afghanistan and Norwegian Special Forces.

Sara: This is a show I’m drawn to when I just want an escape. Chef’s Table, now six seasons in, is a series of short documentaries about culinary masters (you can easily watch just one episode, from any season, in any order). It’s part character study, part travelogue. The fact that you get to watch these chefs create impossibly imaginative, exquisite food is just an added bonus.

Workshop for College Journalists

Right now, the Education Writers Association is still planning to hold its national seminar in Orlando at the end of May. We’re still accepting applications for our workshop to bring college journalists to the meeting. We’ll pay travel costs for the students selected to participate. The short application is here, and the deadline is March 16.

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