COVID-19 has caused more disruption in higher education during the past 30 days than we’ve seen in 30 years.

These challenges are upending business-as-usual at all of our colleges and universities, but this can be an opportunity to achieve greater equality or set us back decades.

Start with admissions. Traditional visit days for admitted students and their families have been canceled so students are doing virtual visits and Zoom conversations with admission officers, faculty and current students. The traditional reply date for students to send in their enrollment deposit has been extended from May 1 to June 1 at many institutions. Standardized admission tests have been canceled for the foreseeable future, causing legions of colleges to no longer require the SAT or ACT.

Uncertain enrollments affect budgets and programs and have entire colleges on edge. As a former director of enrollment planning at Middlebury College, a selective college, I tremble thinking about how institutions will predict net tuition revenue based on who’s coming and who’s returning. The less selective the college, the more difficult to make that forecast and the more vital to that college’s financial position and ultimate survival.

Dropping endowments, foundering fundraising and suspended campus building projects are harbingers of severe financial cutbacks. Last week, the first shoe dropped when three Vermont state colleges almost closed and remain on the edge. We will see hundreds more of America’s 4,000 two- and four-year colleges shut their doors in the days to come.

All of this is happening at a time when getting ahead requires college, and the pandemic will only increase the need for a degree. You can bet that America’s universities, directly or indirectly, will be part of the COVID-19 cure, as well as solutions to our economic crisis.

Although we need higher education today more than ever, I’m troubled by several trends. When the National Association for College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) announced last week it had created an enrollment deposit waiver to help low-income students, the effort felt misplaced. A deposit doesn’t deal with the root issue of affordability and access. Deferring a $600 deposit just delays the pain of a $5,000 tuition bill.

My organization has helped 100,000 low-income kids go to college and I know how crippling college costs are. Tuition has increased six-fold in the past 30 years and college student debt now totals $1.5 trillion.

In recent weeks, we’ve seen the value of online classes, but what about the digital divide? Half the children living in poverty lack either reliable internet or a device to access remote learning.

How about those kids in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom living near the potentially shuttered campuses in Lyndon and Johnson who would have to travel two hours to the nearest university? I know that kids who live 50 miles or farther from a college campus are twice as unlikely to get a college degree.

These obstacles threaten to derail plans across the country to raise degree attainment among students. Forty-three states have set those goals, including Vermont, which wants to boost the number of its residents with degrees within 5 years. But as they say in New England, “you can’t get there from here.”

Amid the troubles are encouraging signs. Economic disaster may finally cause colleges to curtail runaway costs. I applaud University of Vermont President Garimella’s moratorium on tuition increases, something he did months before the COVID-19 crisis. And I know that digital learning can cut costs and make college affordable not in 5 years but immediately. The disruption we’re experiencing can produce a better version of higher education: more affordable, more accessible and a true marker of equality and inclusion. Let’s demand nothing less.

Rick Dalton is the founder and CEO of CFES Brilliant Pathways.

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