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V4I2: Still I’ll Rise

By: Sonny Ramaswamy, President, NWCCU


Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise,”

The powerful voice of Maya Angelou rings true when we look at our colleges and universities and their responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, which started just about two years ago.

SARS-CoV-2 virus, the coronavirus species that causes a type of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, aka COVID-19, was allegedly first discovered in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, although there are reports, yet to be confirmed, the virus may have been around earlier in other parts of China or even outside of China. Identifying the origin of the virus and how it came to infect humans is a politically fraught and challenging endeavor; recently, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced the creation of an advisory group that will take yet another look at the origin of the virus.

The original COVID-19 virus strain from Wuhan has undergone many different mutations in its outer spike protein, which allow the virus to bind more effectively to receptors on human cells, get into cells more easily to infect, and replicate more rapidly.

Like the Sonny and Cher song, “and the beat goes on,” we have the Alpha, Beta, Gamma, Delta, … variants, each one more virulent, causing ever increasing levels of morbidity and mortality. Every so often, there are reports of additional mutations and variants of concern being discovered. Over the long haul, we will likely end up being in an endemic situation with COVID-19, which from time to time will result in significant global morbidity and mortality, not unlike the situation with the influenza virus, requiring vigilance and appropriate responses to manage at the local to the global level.

During the last almost two years, academic institutions have continually adjusted to the changing landscape of the coronavirus, in the context of the fraught environment of science-denialism, fake news, misinformation, hyperpartisanship, and the anti-vax and anti-mask protests. This fraught situation in America, unfortunately, is prolonging our return to normalcy, as we are already seeing in countries such as Denmark and Norway.

In addition to the direct impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, higher education institutions have had to endure declining enrollments and budgets, along with, for instance, the added, significant costs of having to provide remote learning and a safe environment for campus communities, loss of staff, additional costs due to problems with the global supply chain logistics, and now costs to repair damage on some campuses caused by the “devious lick” TikTok Challenge incidents. In a recent survey of a sample of college and university presidents, mental health of students was noted to be the most concerning, along with issues such as student enrollment, mental health of faculty and staff, long-term financial viability, and racial equity. Academic institutions in some states have also had to deal with legislative and local board proscriptions on efforts to address racial and social justice.

The pandemic has exacerbated the existing societal disparities in America. The Princeton University economists, Anne Case and Angus Deaton, write in their bestseller, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism, about college-educated Americans becoming healthier and wealthier and white working-class adults without college degrees literally dying from pain and despair, the face of the opioid crisis in America. In an update of their work in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic they show that mortality to the virus is declining in people who hold a college degree and rising for those without one; college completion is, in part, a public-health issue. A recent report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce provides compelling data and rationale for higher education as a path forward to deal with the extant economic, social, and racial injustices. During the last two years, colleges have continued to add value by helping students develop the skills and knowledge to be able to transcend the educational, economic, social, and public health divide.

Aligned with its vision to promote student success and close equity gaps, NWCCU requires member institutions, in the context of their unique mission, establish disaggregated indicatorssuch as age, race, ethnicity, gender, Pell Grant status, GPA, first-generation student status, and morefor student achievement. While some of the larger universities have the infrastructure and capacity to collect and use such data and predictive analytics to promote student success and close equity gaps, the smaller institutions are challenged. With support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, NWCCU is helping create quantitative data and analytical systems and resources for member institutions to identify benchmark quantitative and qualitative indicators in comparison with peer institutions at the regional and national levels in support of institutional continuous improvement to promote student success and to inform planning, decision making, and allocation of resources. During this past year, 50 NWCCU member institutions participated in the first cohort of the Postsecondary Data Partnership (PDP) Accelerator, including regional and national peer networking, webinars, workshops, “office hours,” and technical support from NWCCU, strategic partners, and expert mentors. Approximately, 60 percent of the first cohort has submitted data and received a robust set of PDP Dashboards. We hope that these dashboards will serve as decision support tools for promoting student achievement and success at our member institutions.

As part of these data-informed systems, NWCCU is creating decision support tools for peer evaluators, commissioners, and staff to use in the accreditation evaluation process. A set of “beta” dashboards, derived from the IPEDS database and institutional annual reports, were provided to peer evaluators and institutions participating in the Fall 2021 cycle of accreditation reviews.

Promoting student success and achieving equity will require a concerted, collaborative, all-hands-on-deck campus effort to remove structural barriers to success of racial, ethnic, gender, and lower socioeconomic groups. Each institution has a unique identity and culture, and within that context must work towards the goal of eliminating inequities.

In the inimitable words of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., “There is no deficit in human resources, the deficit is in human will.”

Efforts at our institutions of higher education during the pandemic provide evidence for the creativity and innovativeness with which they have dealt with the extant challenges created by the COVID-19 virus – with the flexibilities afforded by the United States Department of Education and NWCCU – without taking their eye off the fundamental mission of higher education: promoting student success and closing equity gaps using data- and evidence-informed approaches. Helping students rise above the challenges created by the pandemic is one way colleges support their students to rise over the inequities and disparities.


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