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.