In summary

We must supercharge efforts to invest in students and refuse to allow COVID-19 to disrupt access to higher education.

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By Loren J. Blanchard, Special to CalMatters

Loren J. Blanchard is the executive vice chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs at the California State University,

COVID-19 has thrown higher education into crisis, making it challenging for colleges and universities to offer, and for students to take advantage of, everything that comes with a college degree. 

Students from low-income families and students of color are, and will continue to be, disproportionately impacted: More than 70% of California students who typically apply for financial aid have lost some or all of their sources of income due to the pandemic. At the same time, the many related crises our country is grappling with are issues college-educated citizens are uniquely positioned to address. 

Now more than ever, higher education institutions must ensure students have the opportunity to pursue a degree and work to close equity gaps at the same time.  

Earning a college degree and social equity are linked. College graduates earn approximately $1 million more over their lifetimes compared to high school graduates. College graduates of all races and ethnicities are less likely to face unemployment and have greater, more consistent access to health care. College graduates are more likely to vote, to own a home and ensure their children are well-educated. 

We cannot afford for the next generation of leaders to lose access to higher education or be forced off their path to a degree at this critical time.  

When the coronavirus first slammed the country in March 2020, colleges and universities took immediate action to protect students while continuing their education. It was a frightening time for many reasons, and educators feared the worst. But many institutions immediately began honing the supports they offer to students, helping them stay on the path to graduation. We must supercharge these efforts and refuse to allow COVID-19 to disrupt access to higher education.  

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget for 2021-22 is a welcome reinvestment in the California State University, which allows us to continue to prioritize our flagship student success effort, Graduation Initiative 2025, bolstering record-high graduation rates for CSU students from all backgrounds.   

However, with more, we can do more. Decisions made today about investing in better advising, financial aid programs and degree completion initiatives will positively transform the lives of students and pay dividends in talent development, meeting workforce needs, innovation and economic recovery. 

Investing in students works. Take, for example, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, which expanded its use of advisors last year, enabling advisors and tutors to reach 22,630 students – 85% of all its undergraduates. At California State University, Los Angeles, the administration is accelerating its transition from reactive to proactive advising to better serve students during the pandemic. The idea is to engage students before they get off track, not after. This has resulted in a 12% increase in scheduled advising appointments in the past six months.  

Graduation Initiative 2025 recently announced that these proactive steps are continuing to drive significant increases in systemwide graduation rates and progress on eliminating equity gaps. The CSU has seen the lived impact of unwavering support for students, support that can and should be intensified by all colleges and universities. 

A degree in the hands of a student has transformative power for the individual, their family, their community and the nation. We are developing the future leaders of our workforce, communities and government today on college campuses. Educators, legislators, and business and community leaders all have a responsibility to safeguard and harness this generation’s full potential. 

It is too early to know exactly what this year will look like for colleges, universities and students. Yet, some things we do know. Improving degree completion rates for all students requires a public commitment to quantifiable goals, sustained investment over time and unwavering leadership that keeps institutions moving toward those goals. When colleges and universities make public commitments to this work and act upon them, they get results. An educated citizenry has never been more important to the future of America’s economy and its democracy. We cannot let a pandemic slow down our progress. 

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