The COVID-19 pandemic struck colleges and universities with force in early 2020. Within weeks, about 20,000 schools ceased normal operation, sending home close to 200 million students. Many institutions switched to online classes after only a few days of preparation.

Most colleges and universities had returned to in-person instruction by fall 2021. But COVID-19’s impact is still playing out on campuses in the United States and across the globe. Though we can’t predict the pandemic’s long-term impact, it will almost certainly weaken the economic health of higher education institutions. It’s also likely to limit the success of students, particularly those who already face significant barriers.

The blows from the pandemic hit hardest—and are likely to linger longest—among students from low-income families, students of color, and other vulnerable populations. This study seeks to identify the hardships encountered by these students. It also evaluates the effectiveness of efforts to assist them—nationally and at institutions.

It is a myth that COVID-19 has been a great equalizer. In fact, institutions’ lack of preparation for online instruction and the so-called “digital divide” actually combined to increase educational disparities. This created social distress, especially among vulnerable students.

Despite the challenges, however, the move to online education presents an opportunity to improve the learning experience. Course content and methods of teaching could be reshaped to promote hands-on, interactive education. Such changes could be transformational—if they’re supported by better modes of assessing students’ work and more flexible pathways to degrees and other credentials.

To increase their resilience, higher education systems and institutions must make major changes in their economic models and operations. For example, systems with higher proportions of public funding can more easily adapt to health and economic crises. Strong IT infrastructure and solid student aid programs (grants and income-contingent loans) can bolster enrollment and foster inclusion.

Colleges and universities should better integrate risk analysis and contingency planning. They should focus on student success, providing comprehensive support (financial, academic, and psychological) for vulnerable students.

In all they do, higher education officials must avoid moves that reinforce or deepen disparities. Rather, they must search for solutions that create opportunities for all. And as a matter of priority, they must seek to bring the power and promise of higher learning to those who have long faced barriers to economic success and social mobility.