Considering the Impacts of COVID-19 on Higher Education Inequality in the United States

June 1, 2020
Christina Ciocca Eller

Amid the unprecedented disruption of COVID-19, the 2019-2020 academic year has come to a close for most college and university students in the United States. Yet many are asking: now what? Higher education leaders are offering some answers, speaking to immediate concerns like whether teaching and learning will take place on colleges campuses come the fall, how financial arrangements will be handled, and what scaled-up virtual learning might look like.

But other, longer-term issues remain, perhaps with even more consequential implications for the U.S. higher education sector. One of the most pressing, argues Assistant Professor of Sociology and Social Studies, Christina Ciocca Eller, is how to understand and address longstanding inequalities between students from different socioeconomic and racial backgrounds, especially in light of COVID-19.

Members of the mainstream media have pounced on this issue since the pandemic began, highlighting differences in students' quarantine experiences based on their social class and race, the level and sector of the colleges they attend, and college's discrepant approaches to handling COVID-19.

Scholars, meanwhile, have examined similar issues for decades, both in light of major social shocks (think, World War II or the campus riots of the late 1960s) and in more placid social conditions. Their findings indicate that despite the strong, positive link between higher education degrees and upward social mobility, colleges and universities also can contribute to enduring inequality between traditionally underrepresented (i.e. black, Hispanic, and lower-income) and traditionally represented (i.e. white and higher-income) students—regardless of the overarching social context.

Relatively less research has concentrated on whether and how U.S. colleges and universities may contribute to equalization between student groups through the experiences they shape. But Ciocca Eller makes this issue the center of her research. In her scholarship to date, she has argued that colleges and universities can, in fact, equalize, and that certain college-level resources and dynamics make that equalization possible. She additionally posits that for equalization, major, social forces—such as higher education accountability—will need to change.

In a series of papers that comprised her doctoral dissertation, Ciocca Eller uses administrative and interview data from a large, urban, public university system to show that some colleges in the system are especially skilled at raising students’ bachelor’s degree (BA) completion outcomes beyond those anticipated by their pre-college academic performance and experiences. Other colleges are expert at closing gaps between traditionally underrepresented and represented student groups. Various college characteristics, including the academic pathways they offer and their spending on student support resources, contribute substantially to their equalizing impacts.

In related research published in the American Sociological Review, which focuses on the black-white gap in BA completion and uses nationally representative data, Ciocca Eller and her co-author, Thomas A. DiPrete, show that black students with low, pre-college probabilities of completing BAs benefit both from attending college and from collecting college experiences that increase their chances of completion over time. While not all black students experience these advantages, they do so in large enough numbers to close the BA gap with white students— beyond what would be expected given black students’ pre-college resources and experiences.

Overlaying these findings, however, is a clear problem with the current system of higher education accountability: it often obscures colleges’ and universities’ equalizing impacts by ignoring how colleges might produce different outcomes for different student groups. As Ciocca Eller has noted in arecent podcast, some colleges that look like poor performers based on accountability metrics and college rankings like US News & World Report actually may serve as important equalizers when their student outcome data is adequately assessed.

This array of issues surrounding equalization and accountability no doubt will become even more important in the rapidly-changing higher education context introduced by COVID-19. While the existing focus of higher education leaders, members of the media, and scholars is also important, opportunities also may exist to use the current pandemic to shape purposeful, expansive plans for greater student equalization through higher education experiences. Ciocca Eller’s research suggests that in the long term, such thinking could prove particularly beneficial for shaping a more equitable system of higher learning in the United States.