Can Students, Parents, and Higher Ed Survive a Global Pandemic?

As a philanthropy advisor who works with individuals to help them chart a course for making an impact with their giving, I can attest to the strong interest many donors have in supporting access to higher education.

Some do it because they themselves were scholarship recipients and want to give back to a system that supported them when they needed it; others do it as a way to level the playing field; some want to support the institutions that they hold deep affection for; and others because they see education as a way to improve outcomes for struggling communities.  In short, there can be as many motivations as there are donors. But what they share in common is a yearning to make a difference.

So, last year when Candid launched its new Scholarships for Change website, I was excited to dig into the data and case studies showing how scholarship dollars can be used to effect transformative change. The website, funded by the Ford Foundation and Mellon Foundation, provides funding trend data, case studies, and an interactive grants map with more than 680,000 scholarships.

The case studies highlight the kinds of strategies that funders with many years of experience in supporting scholarships are using to change the lives of individuals, and also change whole regions, institutions, and communities for the better. From Ascendium’s emergency financial aid for unexpected student expenses, to the LeBron James Family Foundation’s strategy of engaging whole families in supporting first-generation college students, the case studies provide an insightful, behind-the-scenes look at how funders are enabling transformative change for scholars everywhere.

So Many Unknowns

Reflecting on these ideas of emergency student aid and the plight of first-generation students, coupled with recent conversations I’ve been having with colleagues and friends, makes me realize the enormity of the need students, parents, universities, and philanthropists will be facing.

COVID-19 has changed everything. Though the full impact of a global pandemic on higher education is not yet known, the disruption that it is causing in the lives and futures of American students is undeniable. Nationwide, colleges and universities are trying to decide whether or not they can safely reopen campuses in the fall. Uncertainty is wreaking havoc in the lives of students, parents and faculty members throughout the country. Yet even in crisis, there are moments of clarity.

Despite the disruption, a whole generation of students is still forced to go through the motions of applying for colleges and financial aid, and deciding whether or not to make the leap to college in the fall. And those who are currently students have seen their college experiences uprooted, shifting from once-engaging campus interactions with faculty and fellow students to less than satisfying remote online instruction. Most students have had to move home, adding layers of emotional complexity to their parents' and siblings' lives as well as their own.

Shortly before sheltering in place began in the Bay Area, I’d joined a women’s incubator at the Hivery, a women’s creative workspace and community at Fort Mason in San Francisco. Every Friday for three months, this group of 21 highly motivated, talented women were scheduled to meet  in a beautiful workspace to help each other bring our passion projects to life. But just three weeks into the incubator, the coronavirus led to sheltering in place and all of our gatherings pivoted to Zoom virtual meetings. As we checked in with each other online to see how we each were doing, it became clear that the unprecedented challenges that their children now faced were taking a heavy emotional toll on the mothers in our group.

A catalytic bonding moment occurred for all of us who hadn’t known each other well before the incubator began, when one of the participants teared up and told us how she and her son were both struggling with fear. “My son’s clamming up,” she said. “I’m afraid for him to travel. We’re considering letting him take a gap year.” Others jumped in, noting that their finances were stretched now, yet tuitions remain the same. “No one wants to pay full tuition for an online experience,” someone added.

Another mentioned the sheer terror her child was going through. “She’s talking about death. We’re all watching too much news and get anxious when we constantly hear about people getting sick and dying.”

Participants commiserated over children concerned about looking for work as the economy crashed, frustration and confusion over credit/no credit grading systems, coveted internships that may no longer be possible, entering freshmen looking at their dreams deferred, and concerns that college may become even more out of reach for first-generation students than it already was.

Envisioning Philanthropy’s Role

According to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, higher education grantmakers, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Lumina, Kresge, and others share these concerns and are focused on efforts to get more emergency aid directly into the hands of students who were already at a financial disadvantage and who will be disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 economic turmoil.

The Scholarships for Change case studies also provide a helpful playbook for donors to follow when it comes to meeting the needs of first-generation and economically disadvantaged college students. The Ascendium Dash Emergency Program helps low-income and underrepresented students complete college by creating a safety net of small grants designed to help students overcome unexpected financial setbacks.

Aside from financial setbacks that low-income students may now be facing, another consideration is the change of educational setting as many college students have had to return home and access remote learning. How will first-generation college students get the educational support and mentoring that they need? The LeBron James Family Foundation's I Promise Scholarship case study provides some helpful insights for donors about engaging entire families and multiple generations in the effort to change life trajectories with access to education. The focus is not just on the student, but also on supporting educational attainment for parents and extended family of the student.

The Wall Street Journal (Colleges Ponder Fall Semesters) notes that the return to normal may take many years. Ted Mitchell, president of the American Council on Education, a higher-education advocacy group, estimates that the number of students on campus will decline by 15 percent, causing $23 billion in lost revenue. Some colleges may not survive the financial shocks of the pandemic, particularly those with small endowments, less than $24 million.

For funders seeking impact in this challenging environment, it’s safe to say that approaches that were effective prior to the pandemic will be equally but more important going forward. The need for scholarship support, for instance, will be intensified as the economy and the job market slowly recover. Financial support will be critical for first-generation students and for those who were financially vulnerable prior to the crisis, who may no longer consider higher education an option without significant scholarship support. Graduation rates may decline as students facing new financial hurdles--whose college plans may be disrupted--need to take much longer to fulfill academic requirements. Plans may need to be put in place to lure back dropouts.

Going forward, colleges will need to be much more proactive in anticipating and addressing the needs of students whose lives have been impacted by COVID-19. As a funder, it always makes sense to keep in close communication with your contacts at a college you’ve funded, and it is especially critical now to ascertain as realistically as you can how colleges are addressing the specific needs of their students and faculty.

Approaches for Impactful Funding Going Forward

  1. Give unrestricted support that will allow colleges and universities the flexibility to meet students’ needs as they arise and to design programs that will bridge workplace and college learning, encourage entrepreneurialism in an age of diminishing jobs, or ease students’ transition from community colleges to four-year institutions, or from colleges that may close during the crisis to more viable institutions.
  2. Increase funding for support programs for first-generation and financially vulnerable students.
  3. Encourage other funders to join you and leverage your support. Tech philanthropists Jennifer and David Risher's #HalfMyDAF set an inspiring example recently by setting up $1 million challenge in matching grants for nonprofits whose backers pledge to donate half the money they keep in donor advised funds to nonprofits by the end of September. One hundred nonprofits will receive matching grants of up to $10,000.

Funding in a pandemic crisis and its unknown aftermath is uncharted territory. But now, as never before, it’s essential to communicate with your grant partners and to adopt a flexible mindset in addressing their evolving needs.