Visions of a Post-COVID Higher Education Utopia

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Now that we’re wrapping up week seven (eight? Hundred?) of this new world order, I’m starting to get really tired of depressing news. I’m tired of hearing about the growing death count, of thinking about all we’ll lose when this is over, and tired especially of all the worrying I have to do for the many healthcare workers I know on the frontlines of this disease.

Tired as I am, it sometimes feels like I can’t help but take in all the news about the virus that’s available to me, and part of that has been listening to the Daily while l doomscroll through my Twitter feed. There was an episode of the Daily earlier this week that wrapped up with a quick conversation between Michael Barbaro and the Times’ health and science reporter, Donald G. McNeil Jr., about a possible silver lining of this nightmare moment: the opportunity for meaningful, lasting change.

McNeil brought up the period after the World Wars, when Americans demanded things like G.I. Bill, federally-sponsored mortgages, and better health care — and got it.

“I hope that sort of era comes again,” he said. “And that we will do more to make sure that we take care of each other, and that that’ll go through all levels of society.”

It made me think of a discussion I’d had in a speculative fiction class I took last fall, where after reading the Feminist Utopia Project, the professor had asked us to imagine what higher education would look in our own utopias. If you could reshape these institutions to operate and serve you perfectly, she’d asked, how would you do it?

It’s an exercise I’ve been thinking back to a lot in the past two months as we’ve collectively started to question how our systems work, and why they seem to be cracking under the pressure. Like McNeil, I’ve been taking comfort in the fact that we’re going to come out on the other end of this with the acknowledgement that we need change, and the motivation to make that change happen. This is a chance to reshape higher education, and do away with the elements of it that aren’t serving us. If there’s any hope, the powers that be in academia are already having these conversations.

When colleges open up again, it better not be business as usual

In the past week, my university has started reaching out to students taking summer classes for “technology check-ins” to find out if they have the necessary computers and access to reliable internet needed now that in-person instruction has been suspended. While it’s good to see those needs being addressed, it struck me that this was the first time since getting to college that I’ve ever been asked that question. It shouldn’t take a crisis to get college officials to check in with vulnerable populations. If anything, this is proof that when you wait for the worst to happen, you’ll be critically unprepared.

A recent survey from the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and the Hope Center, found that while most colleges offer some kind of resource to meet the needs of their students, estimates on the percentage of students impacted by basic needs insecurity varies widely. In my vision of the future, proactive advising for students in need of food, housing, transportation, and health care is a given.

There are some colleges that are already doing that work to the best of their ability. Take the University of California at Riverside, which within a week of closing campus offered students continued housing, gave out free laptops and tablets, and (most importantly) cut tuition costs. Maybe the college was more adept at meeting those needs because it already prioritized supporting low-income and first-generation students. It enrolls more Pell Grant recipients than the entire Ivy League combined.

The future I want to see has to be one where colleges across the board care more about helping those kinds of students, and it’s clear to me that that comes with having those students on your campus to begin with. And that brings us to admissions, the corner of higher education where coronavirus is causing some of the most noticeable changes. I’ve seen it said that college admissions will never look the same, and to that I say, it’s about time.

As the SAT and ACT move online, colleges left and right are doing away with requirements for standardized test scores, and suddenly this process that has for so long been painted as impossible to change, is changing. With any luck this is just the beginning in a shift away from the standardized tests across the board. As we do away with this unnecessary barrier, let’s start thinking big about what admissions can look like in the future.

I hope that looks like active recruitment in inner-city and rural communities, putting less emphasis on demonstrated interest, and caring more about college outcomes than college rankings. (Getting rid of legacy admissions wouldn’t hurt either.)

By the time college students return to campus, whether that be in the fall or in 2021, I hope they’ll be doing it at institutions that’ve learned from this experience and built policies to reflect that. Ideally that’ll be in classrooms where accessibility is prioritized, and with professors who’re being supported by their administrations. I hope they’ll feel like they’re pursuing their education in a system that supports them, not treats them like streams of revenue.

Thanks for reading,

Zipporah

A quick note: We’re not yet living in the future I’m imagining, so for most of us our energy is better spent in trying to ease the burdens of the people around us as best we can. If you’ve got the time or money, please consider inching us toward a better future by donating to Hope4College’s COVID-19 student relief fund, donating technology to students in need, or offering support and mentorship to the first-generation college students in your life.

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