Race, Education, and the Pandemic

The virus has had a notably different impact on college students of different ethnicities.

COVID-19 IS having a strikingly unequal—and paradoxical—impact on students of different races. While only 11 percent of white students say the pandemic has increased their perceived value of a college education, at least 30 percent of Black, Latino, and Asian Americans say it has.

The findings come from the Understanding Coronavirus in America Study, conducted by the University of Southern California’s Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research (CESR). The study includes 998 households with at least one individual currently enrolled in community college or a four-year institution and was conducted in three waves between April 29 and July 21.

Why has the pandemic made education seem more attractive to respondents? One reason is that people who are less educated, from minority backgrounds, or from lower income households are more likely to fear the health effects of the virus, says Anna Saavedra, CESR education research scientist and co-director of the education portion of the study.

“Since 54 percent of college graduates have been able to limit their exposure to COVID-19 by teleworking during the pandemic, compared to 23 percent of those with a high school diploma but no college coursework, it’s possible the coronavirus has heightened the value of a college degree for both health and economic reasons,” says Saavedra.

Despite putting a higher value on education now, students of color and low-income students are much more likely to delay their educations because of the pandemic. Just 3 percent of white students plan to take fewer classes in the fall, compared to 29 percent of Asian American, 24 percent of Latino, and 7 percent of Black students. Among low-income students, 18 percent said they expect to take lighter course loads when the new school year starts. These differences might be explained by differences in students’ family care responsibilities: Latino, Asian American, and low-income students are far more likely to report increases in these responsibilities because of the effects of COVID-19 on their families.

Graphic courtesy of the University of Southern California’s Dornsife Center for Economic and Social Research.

“The survey results suggest that students of color view higher education as a way to create more economic security and protection from the ravages of the pandemic,” says Dominique Baker, who commented on the study. She is assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University’s Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education & Human Development. “So, the fact that the students who feel they need a credential the most are also the ones who are reducing their course loads is troubling.”

Baker adds that when students reduce their course loads, it’s more likely that they will need more time and incur more debt to earn their degrees—or worse, they won’t earn their degrees at all. She says, “Students of color are balancing additional responsibilities beyond school that will not allow them to focus on their coursework the way their peers may be able to.”

The study is supported in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the National Science Foundation Discovery Research preK-12 program, and USC. It is updated daily and available to researchers and the public.