Higher education system faces the inequities COVID-19 exposes

With pandemic budget cuts looming, Penn GSE’s Laura Perna says policymakers should prioritize low-income college students.

The COVID-19 pandemic has created a crisis across higher education, for both institutions and learners. But these new challenges are coming to rest on old inequalities that kept many low and middle-income Americans from attending college or earning a degree. 

Person walking along Locust Walk seen through the bars of a railing of a campus building

The 2020 Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States details this uneven landscape that is influenced by family income and history, geography, a wide range of state policies, and the declining value of federal student aid. The report shows that paying for college has never been harder, and those who attend are more likely to leave burdened with debt, whether or not they graduate. The report, building on a series, is published jointly by the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Education of the Council for Opportunity in Education and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy (PennAHEAD).

The lowest income students in the United States face great obstacles paying for college and the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic may compound the uncertainty such students face, particularly as federal aid covers a smaller share of college costs and most states give little in the way of financial grants to the poorest students. At the same time, for the poorest dependent students, far more family income was needed to pay for college in 2016 than even in 2008.

“Right now, low-income and first-generation students are deciding if they will be able to start college or return to college in the fall. This report spells out many of the extra hurdles these students faced to earning a degree even before the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Penn GSE’s Laura Perna, who co-authored the report. “With budget cuts looming, policymakers must prioritize these students because if they are forced off the path now, they are the least likely to make it back on.”

Read more at Penn GSE.