Photo by Charles DeLoye on Unsplash

As we look ahead to our post-pandemic future, we need to think about the role that higher education must play in creating meaningful opportunities for students, especially those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

According to the National Student Clearinghouse, during the pandemic, colleges and universities saw their largest decline in enrollment (7.2 percent) among traditional college-age students (18-20), who make up the largest share of undergraduates. The fall 2020 enrollment declines were steepest among low-income students and students of color, many of whom did not make the transition to postsecondary education. Challenges are continuing this year, as fewer potential postsecondary students have completed the federal student aid form, known as FAFSA, for the upcoming semester.

These sobering figures portend extraordinary, ongoing losses for our nation unless we act quickly to restore opportunity and access for students who are underrepresented in higher education. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “The U.S. economy misses out on $956 billion a year as a result of postsecondary attainment gaps by economic status and race/ethnicity.”

The fall 2020 enrollment declines were steepest among low-income students and students of color, many of whom did not make the transition to postsecondary education.

For students who remained enrolled at colleges and universities during the pandemic (and for those who may have had to leave), the federal government has acted swiftly, providing several much-needed lifelines. The Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds directed approximately $34 billion to help students enrolled in postsecondary education with any emergency costs resulting from the pandemic, such as food, housing or other basic needs. Institutions also received funds to pay for personal protective equipment and Covid-19 testing kits, as well as new technology platforms and costs related to shutting down campuses last spring. This support buoyed students and institutions: Some Jesuit colleges and universities used their institutional funds to help students pay off student tuition balances or to make a greater investment in student financial assistance.

For millions of students and their families, these funds provided vital short-term relief at a most critical time. At the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities, we advocated for these funds because we learned immediately how devastating the pandemic was for so many on our campuses: food insecurity, lack of internet access or computers, and unstable housing were among some of the gravest hardships. For the most at-risk students, our dorms and dining halls stayed open while most other buildings on our campuses were shut down for safety reasons. As is often the case, we provided a safety net for our students—an outgrowth of our mission of cura personalis.

In the weeks and months to come, we need to act swiftly and with urgency to open the doors of opportunity to higher education more widely to all, particularly students who have been historically underrepresented, including those who are economically disadvantaged and students of color. Though Covid-19 relief funds will help to stabilize our economy, we know we must do more to ensure college is within reach for those who seek the opportunity to obtain a higher education, regardless of their income or needs.

The Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities is committed to working with the Biden administration and Congress to double the maximum Pell grant to $13,000.

Jesuit colleges and universities, like our Catholic sister institutions, have a long track record of lifting up the middle class, immigrants and refugees, and other communities underrepresented in higher education. Our schools also enroll a large number of students eligible for Pell grants. This program, aimed at middle-class and low-income students, enables them to attend the college of their choice—the school that provides the right fit for their needs.

In current dollars, a Pell grant covers a smaller portion of the cost of attendance for both private and public institutions than it did in 1972, when the program was founded. Therefore, A.J.C.U. is committed to working with the Biden administration and Congress to double the maximum Pell grant to $13,000. This will greatly reduce borrowing for college and result in greater access to, and completion of, a postsecondary degrees.

It makes a great deal of sense to get students back on track after a challenging year of losses and struggle. Do we really want to make attaining a college degree more difficult for young people who are already feeling concerned about the future of their lives and our country? Putting the opportunity for an education into the hands of young people is one way of saying that we believe in their ability to make this country a better place for all. Supporting those colleges and universities with a track record for genuine care—those that offer a holistic education and cultivate the intellect, imagination, psyche and spirit—makes public policy sense.

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