Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education

COVID-19 offers opportunity to strengthen our values on campus diversity

April 29, 2020

Travis Powell

We use the term every day now – "new normal." It applies to how we greet each other, how we travel, how our economy works. But how do we ensure our new normal reflects our values on diversity, equity and inclusion?

The stakes are high on college campuses.

This week, experts from the higher education research firm SimpsonScarborough estimated that 32% of minority students are in jeopardy of not returning to college next semester. Meanwhile, 41% of minority high school seniors may not begin college at all.

Since 2016, Kentucky has made tremendous progress under our statewide diversity policy for postsecondary education, but we can't allow our state to backslide amid the disruption and uncertainty of COVID-19.

We must use these times of crisis to clarify and strengthen our values, and pledge that those values will remain relevant once the crisis is over.

We must use these times of crisis to clarify and strengthen our values, and pledge that those values will remain relevant once the crisis is over.

This can be difficult, particularly when we're doing our best to simply survive. But whatever our new normal becomes, it must include a steadfast commitment to the success of our traditionally under-served populations. When the world opens back up for business, they absolutely cannot be left behind.

Often students in these populations have found themselves on the margins of higher education, even under normal circumstances. Many were already stepping out on a limb just by going to college, and the current circumstances make that limb more delicate than ever before.

But if our values demand this commitment, we must take action to ensure that these students are not left behind. We must be purposeful and direct. In the short term, these actions should include the following:

Easy access to resources

The federal government has provided funding to all campuses that receive federal aid, helping students fill in the financial gaps from COVID-19. Other resources have been made available, or will be in the future, by various state or charitable entities, or the institutions themselves, to assist students in need.

NKU's COVID-19 Student Emergency Fund focuses supporting our students' needs during the global pandemic—whether educational or personal.

Simple and seamless access to these resources is a necessity. While we want our students to learn grit and determination – and how to persevere through difficult situations – this is not the time or the mechanism to make that point. Those who need to feed themselves and their families, or keep loved ones safe at home, have plenty of opportunity to learn those lessons. Let's help them prepare for a better life so that the next crisis has less impact on their family.


We must let these students know that we expect them to continue with their studies and graduate, despite all that could keep them from doing so. And if they do not continue, we need to let them know that this is not expected behavior for someone of their aptitude and potential.

The University of Kentucky's faculty has remained in touch with their students through social media and calls.

Inevitably, some students have no choice but to step away. But for many, we need to hold them accountable to stay and finish because they can and should. Students need to play the long game and the unemployment trends we see now track right along with what we already know. Obtaining a degree makes you more durable economically. Sacrifices made now will pay off later as we know from the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education's recent Return on Investment report. Higher Education matters more than ever in the face of a crisis.

Society will persevere and move forward as it has done throughout the course of this country's history, and the history of humankind. But as we work through this crisis, and later when the dust settles, we must be mindful of our most vulnerable populations so that they aren't further disadvantaged.

Our new normal must include a focus on diversity, equity and inclusion and a push toward the continued success of our low-income and underrepresented students. We have already come so far, and if our core values include a commitment to their success, we can turn the potential to fall back into a positive step forward, and succeed at even greater levels than we would have otherwise.

Last Updated: 7/21/2021