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I Am Not an Outlier: Two Years On, Part One

Written By: Aly Hill


The MAPS Project: Capturing Student Voices


In 2019, the Sorenson Impact Center launched the MAPS Project, a student-centric initiative to chart the rapidly evolving higher education landscape and bring historically marginalized voices to higher ed using innovative data modeling and storytelling. The Covid-19 pandemic began just one year later. Having an outsized impact on student success and exacerbating the inequities faced by marginalized student populations, the pandemic serves as a case study in higher education crisis response.


To better understand how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted higher ed students, inform proactive and student-centric responses from higher education decision makers, and capture student voices, the MAPS ‘I Am Not an Outlier campaign was created. In 2020, we sat down with six higher ed students from various backgrounds to track and document their stories throughout the pandemic. In 2021, we caught up with four of them to learn more about their experiences, state policy implications, and institutional reactions. In doing so, we identified six emerging themes among students in higher ed. In this article, we explore three of those themes.



Providing and Promoting Access to Institutional Resources


In March 2020, with little warning, thousands of colleges and universities shuttered in response to the global Covid-19 outbreak, taking with them many of the networks and resources they offered to students. While many universities pivoted to expand access to virtual resources and support, social isolation, virtual learning environments, and the loss of in-person opportunities had demonstrable effects on students’ mental health. More than half of higher ed students reported increased anxiety, depression, and feelings of loneliness during the pandemic, with students citing concerns regarding health and safety, financial stability, and continued education.


This was compounded by a perceived lack of mental health resources by students, which disproportionately impacted students of color. While the criteria for mental health problems rose among students during the pandemic, the percentage of students seeking help declined, demonstrating students' struggle with access to institutional resources. Growing mental struggles coupled with fewer institutional resources were reflected by ‘I am Not an Outlier’ participants.


Erika, a low-income student studying international relations faced uncertainty about graduation during the pandemic, is not an outlier. Like many students during the pandemic, Erika reported feelings of depression and anxiety, but rarely utilized university resources to manage her mental health. She shares, “When I think about a loss or a challenge that the university could have helped with, I guess in my mind I would never think the university was a resource for helping me…In my mind, they aren’t an institution that provides services beyond academic courses.”


Carolyn, a non-traditional student pursuing a political science degree, similarly recognized the importance of mental health and counseling resources, speaking to the broad spectrum of students’ mental health challenges during the health crisis. “There’s this whole spectrum that happens from being emotionally healthy to death by suicide,” says Carolyn. “There’s lots of ways that we can work to make sure students are healthy and that they get the help they need.”Students were not only concerned about their ability to stay healthy during the pandemic, but their financial status became an issue.



Financial Strain: Limiting Barriers to Access


For many students during the pandemic, financial resources posed a major challenge to educational outcomes, as they coped with job loss, the loss of university housing, and the loss of financial assistance.


Reflecting on the cost of her own education, Carolyn spoke to the financial challenges faced by higher ed students. “These little nickel and dime costs...add up,” she shares. “Those are the barriers that keep students from low-income or first generation families from being able to make it into the programs….All of this stuff is...daunting and overwhelming to kids. If we want to make a difference in marginalized communities, we have to reduce those barriers.”


Tammy an Indigenous student exemplifies these challenges. During the pandemic, Tammy was kicked out of her housing twice. Having to find housing on short notice while going to school created added stress for Tammy given the already challenging circumstances. Tammy is not an outlier.


Financial stress and hardship were common experiences among higher education students, with 46% of students reporting that universities didn’t do enough to support them during the pandemic according to the 2021 College Student Financial Survey. Among those, research from the Student Experience in the Research University (SERU) Consortium survey found that “students from low-income/poor and working-class backgrounds were significantly more likely than their peers to experience financial hardships, including the loss or reduction of income from other family members, unexpected increases in living experiences and technology, the loss/cancellation of expected jobs or internships, and the loss of wages from off-campus employment.”


Moreover, poor financial health may have contributed to additional resource barriers for students in virtual learning environments, whereas financial status impacts students' access to affordable housing, high-quality internet, and overall well-being. These data demonstrate the need for institutional policies that better address disparities during financial recessions.


Opening Doors: New Academic and Professional Opportunities


Despite challenges, the pandemic meant new opportunities for some students. A study conducted among 200 U.S. college students in 2020 found that, when asked how COVID-19 impacted their current and future plans, 16% of students reported that the pandemic provided them with beneficial opportunities. This trend was observed the most among men, followed by first generation students and low-income students.


Following the pandemic outbreak, Divyam, a pre-med student, was forced to abandon his extracurricular activities to protect the health of his immunocompromised father. But with the health crisis came new opportunities. Having never explored opportunities outside of science, the pandemic empowered Divyam to look at science from a public policy perspective, a decision that he believes will influence his long-term career pursuits. “I realized that there’s a lot more that I like to do than biology, and...I’m looking at a lot more public policy and medicine sort of related field,” Divyam shares. “In that way, Covid definitely left me rethinking, but also saying I found new things I like to do.”


For Carolyn, the pandemic enabled her to move her expected graduation date forward. As a full time mom, employee, and student, the switch to online learning meant that Carolyn could take additional courses while working and taking care of her family. “The fact that..more classes and a variety of classes are offered online is actually probably helping me make that decision….If they weren’t offered online before, I probably wouldn’t have taken them.” she says. “The variety has opened up a lot of ideas to me that logistics would have just removed from my capabilities.”



Conclusion


Despite some pandemic opportunities, difficulties assessing institutional resources and financial struggles were common themes among higher education students during the global health crisis. While these themes are not representative of all student experiences during the pandemic, they offer a brief snapshot into the issues affecting higher ed students during the health crisis. By centering student voices in decision-making spaces and facilitating a culture of inclusivity, innovation, & co-creation, higher education institutions will be better equipped to address student barriers and manage future crises.


Stay tuned for the next article in this series.


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