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Bridging the Socio-Economic Divide in the Era of Covid

We’ve been told for eons that to get ahead you need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

Not really, according to new research in Policy Insights from the Behavioral and Brain Sciences.

Data show, and 83 percent of Americans agree, that higher education is essential and “one of the most robust routes out of poverty,” Wendy R. Williams and Harmony A Reppond write in “More Than Just Hard Work: Educational Policies to Facilitate Economic Mobility.”

Yet in the world of COVID-19, higher education has slipped further out of grasp for students at the lowest ends of the socioeconomic divide.

Consider things most middle-class students take for granted: plenty of food, housing, the skills to navigate financial aid applications, and enough resources at home so they are not burdened with caring for sick relatives or contributing to the family income. 

Then there are the approximately 6 million college students who worry where their next meal is coming from or where they will sleep that night.  According to the research, about 40 percent of the more than 300,000 college students who responded to a longitudinal study reported that they eat less than they need, and less nutritious food, so they will have money for books.  A slightly larger percentage confessed that they rely on friends’ couches or sleep in cars and seek out places on campus for personal hygiene.  

When basic needs are not met, it’s hard to think about classwork.  And on top of that, low-income college students report feeling alienated — “schools more often reproduce the existing class hierarchies within society rather than embody the classless society they are intended to create,” the report explains.

Federal programs exist to help low-income students, but they could use some tweaking.  For example, federal subsidies used to cover nearly 80 percent of tuition for low-income students; today they cover less than 30 percent.

Federal food assistance programs also could be more helpful.  As the authors propose, rather than force students with few resources into traditional work for 20 hours a week to become eligible, allow those students to use learning as “work.”

Other recommendations include helping students with “instrumental knowledge,” such as showing students how to apply for fellowships and other forms of financial aid and providing counseling services not only for career but also personal issues.

“Now is the time to get ahead of the crisis and its aftermath,” the authors explain, laying it out with this equation:

Resource-Rich Education + Socioeconomic Supports = Economic Mobility

Through “strong, proactive policy solutions,” lawmakers can not only ease the burden brought on by COVID-19 but also “restore the promise of mobility through education.”

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