Students at Virginia Union University. Photo Credit: VUU

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Pandemic Realities for HBCU Students

We’ve long known that the pandemic affects different groups of students and different types of institutions differently. A new survey of thousands of students at historically Black colleges gives us a clearer glimpse of just how acutely these past couple of years have affected them.

For one, Covid-19 directly impacted them and their families. One out of four of the 5,000 students surveyed said a friend or family member of theirs had died from the virus.

The students also reported food and housing challenges during the pandemic: 46% said they were food insecure, with limited nutritional food available, and 55% said they did not have access to affordable and safe housing. Those problems were even more likely to be reported by students who were parents, women, low-income, or identified as LGBTQ.

The survey was conducted by The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice as well as the Center for Historically Black Colleges & Universities at Virginia Union University. It was done in part to understand basic needs and pandemic challenges HBCU students faced during fall 2020.

Terrell Strayhorn, one of the report researchers and provost and senior vice president at Virginia Union University, says the research offers an updated understanding of what students are going through.

“We start by knowing that there are racialized inequities in the system of higher education,” Strayhorn says. “But what I think we learned from the report is how those pre-existing conditions were exacerbated and made more complicated, and in some cases heightened, by other aspects of the pandemic.”

HBCUs serve students who are first-generation or low-income and many lost their jobs or did not have access to healthcare, Strayhorn said.

By revealing the depth of students’ challenges with basic needs, the survey is painting a clearer picture for colleges of what might get in the way of their students’ performance.

“We have pretty incredible science that shows their ability to deeply engage and to focus and direct their attention is hijacked because they’re distracted by these fundamental needs,” Strayhorn says. “These factors get in the way of their success. We’ve got to keep that on the radar.”

Along with the study, the Hope Center and the Center for the Study of HBCUs launched a coalition called #RealCollegeHBCU. The coalition will work with 10 HBCUs to address students’ needs, enrollment declines, and other institutional services. Each partnered university will have data-driven training sessions.

In the past, the Hope Center worked with HBCUs in Virginia along with state government to create a pilot program that offered wraparound support services from housing to food to childcare to transportation, all in an effort to help students continue school.

“Talking to a lot of students I’ve heard so many stories about life getting in the way and they might not be able to finish their credentials,” says Atif Qarni, the managing director for external affairs at The Hope Center.

Institutions need to be creative in finding ways to help students in a more holistic manner, he said.

Together, the coalition will work with historically Black college partners to review their own institutional policies and advocate for more state and national level support. For example, Strayhorn said, the coalition can offer technical assistance to work with partnered universities in allocating federal resources and emergency aid to address student needs.

The Greatest Need

Among the other students impacted the most by the pandemic are those who attend community colleges and rural-serving institutions.

Community colleges are getting hit hard by undergraduate enrollment declines, seeing a 3.4% decrease this past fall from the year before. That comes after a 10.1% drop in fall 2020. The Biden Administration recently announced nearly $200 million in new funds to help community colleges, as well as rural institutions, that have been especially affected by the pandemic.

Community colleges serve many of the students that have been hardest hit by the pandemic, including students of color and low-income students. About one-third of the nation’s first-generation students attend a community college, said Martha Parham, senior vice president of public affairs at the American Association of Community Colleges.

“What we’ve seen from our colleges is that a lot of them have really taken this time to step back and rethink how they’re offering support services,” says Parham.

In response to pandemic needs, community colleges have done things like set up WIFI hotspots, connected students to health services and reverted back to good-old fashioned phone calls to make sure to talk with students.

Parham hopes the new money, coming under the American Rescue Plan, can help colleges fill in more gaps.

Race and Student Debt

Student debt exacerbates racial and gender inequalities. Several Black advocacy groups this week requested an audience with White House officials to talk about confronting it.

Four years after graduation, the average Black college graduate owes $52,726 compared to $28,006 for the average white college graduate, according to Brookings. The disparities for Black women are particularly striking, the advocacy groups said. Only one year after graduating, Black women owe an average of $41,466 in undergraduate loans, while white women owe $33,851.

Groups like NAACP and 1000 Women Strong are urging the president to cancel student debt. As part of Black History Month, the organizations will hold a webinar today at 6 p.m. EST to talk with elected officials like Representative Ayanna Pressley about debt cancellation and the impact of student debt on Black women borrowers.

What I’ve Been Reading

Here’s a deep dive into the affirmative action case in higher education by Meredith Deliso at ABC News. The Supreme Court will hear two cases that call into question the use of race in the undergraduate admissions process at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.

State legislators are proposing bills that would restrict teaching of critical race theory in classrooms.

  • Molly Minta at Mississippi Today reports on the Jackson State University’s Faculty Senate resolution that opposed banning teaching critical race theory in the state.
  • Legislation in Georgia is targeting critical race theory according to a story by Jim Burress and Sam Gringlas at WABE. A new bill would stop K-12 and colleges within the University System of Georgia from teaching “divisive concepts” like systemic racism in the country and in the state.

A report by Third Way, a center-left public policy think tank, analyzed how certain higher education institutions can provide economic mobility to low-and moderate-income students. Nicole Acevedo at NBC News takes a look at what the report reveals about the strong records of a number of Hispanic Serving Institutions.

Thanks for reading!

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Open Campus national reporter covering the intersection of race and higher education.