Colleges’ decisions about what to do this fall were more closely associated with the political structures of their state and how white their student bodies are than they were with the number of covid cases in their communities, according to this new research and policy brief
Colleges were more likely to decide to return in person or less likely to go online if they:
- Were in states with Republican governors
- Were in states with a Republican-controlled legislature
- Enrolled larger shares of white students
The study, by the College Crisis Initiative at Davidson College, found “no discernible pattern” in the relationships between counties’ covid cases and colleges’ operational decisions “that allowed us to suggest these rates were an important part of the decision-making process.”
In fact, most colleges that had made decisions in June about re-opening stubbornly stuck with those decisions even as covid cases grew, says Daniel Collier, the researcher who led the study.
Every college sector, even private institutions, was subject to political pressures, the study found.
Collier, who’s a research associate at the W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, said it’s natural for colleges of all kinds to do what they can to be closer to power. The boards, presidents, and alumni of private colleges, too, want to be in their state leaders’ “in groups” because that tends to translate into more favors and more positive attention.
Another factor linked to colleges’ decisions: the share of their undergraduates who are white. Colleges that enroll higher proportions of white students were less likely to go primarily online. The trends, the report concluded, “seem to suggest the existence of white identity pressures on institutional decisions.”
White people as a group have been less impacted by covid than other racial and ethnic groups, Collier says, both in terms of who has contracted it and how the pandemic has affected them financially.
They then might believe covid is not quite as dangerous. Combine that, Collier says, with many parents’ desire for their kids to have the college experience that they believe was promised them, then you could see how college leaders would perceive a business pressure to just bring students back.