COVID-19 is widening inequality in higher education

Esteban Aucejo, Jacob French, Paola Ugalde Araya, Basit Zafar 09 August 2020



Universities are currently facing an unprecedented situation as administrators struggle to redesign higher education for a post-COVID world (e.g. Dolton 2020 for the UK). Throughout this process, much of the discussion has necessarily remained anecdotal. However, new research is emerging which evaluates how COVID-19 has already impacted a generation of students.

In a recent working paper currently undergoing peer review, we surveyed students at Arizona State University, one of the largest public universities in the US, during the end of their 2020 spring semester (Aucejo et al. 2020). Our findings reinforce a general consensus that the pandemic was broadly disruptive to students, while also demonstrating that this disruption was much larger for lower-income students. This second finding seems to be primarily driven by the fact that lower-income students were more likely to have been financially impacted by COVID-19 and were more worried about the direct health risks from the virus. By embracing more flexible policies, universities may be able to prevent the pandemic from widening academic inequalities while also limiting the disruption to all of their students.

The pandemic’s distributional effects are especially worrying given the large existing disparities in higher education. A study from 2011 found that much of the growth in educational attainment over the last half-century has been concentrated within the richest half of Americans, with children from households in the bottom income quartile only one fifth as likely to graduate from college as those from the top quartile (Duncan and Murnane, 2011). Preventing this achievement gap from widening during the pandemic should be a top priority in order to maintain higher education as a crucial engine of upward mobility in the US.

The students in our survey reported COVID-19 impacted their spring semester in a way that suggests their learning capacity was diminished by the pandemic. For example, due to the pandemic, students expected to have lower semester GPAs and studied fewer hours per week. On average, students also report they will be less likely to opt for online education in the future after their experiences in the past semester, suggesting that some of the academic decline may be due to the abrupt switch to online learning in the middle of the semester.

A decline in the educational value of college during the pandemic is in line with new evidence about K-12 students (Kuhfeld et al. 2020). A team of researchers from the University of Virginia, Brown University, and NWEA used existing research on the impact of missing school to project that 3rd-8th graders are likely to return in fall 2020 with less than 70% of the learning gains relative to a typical school year.

The pandemic’s impact on the college students in our survey was not limited to the spring semester. Approximately one in ten students plans to delay their graduation due to COVID-19 and a similar proportion withdrew from at least one course because of the pandemic. Prolonging the time to graduation places an additional burden on students’ finances by increasing both the total cost of an education and the time until a student can begin working full-time. This is particularly concerning because students also report a decrease in financial stability due to the pandemic; nearly three in ten students lost personal income because of COVID-19 and more than half had a close family member who lost income.

Even further into the future, students expect the pandemic to affect their careers. Graduating seniors expected to earn 5% less after graduation and 4% less at age 35 because of the pandemic. Even the current freshmen class believed that COVID-19 will make it harder to find a job after they graduate. These beliefs are consistent with previous research which has shown students who graduate during recessions earn less throughout their careers (Rothstein 2020).

Worryingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the immediate financial impact of COVID-19 appears to have been more acute for lower-income students, who are more likely to have had a family member lose income due to the pandemic. The same students also report being more worried about the pandemic’s impact on their health. This disparity in the financial cost of COVID-19 and perceived risk of the virus carried through into students' academic progression. Lower-income students are 50% more likely than their more affluent peers to expect a delayed graduation due to COVID-19, a gap which disappears once accounting for the differential financial burdens or health risks imposed by COVID-19. Lower-income students are also more likely to anticipate taking a break from college during the fall 2020 semester. On average, students expect to take a break at more than two times the historic rate, but the pandemic also increased the difference in likelihood between higher and lower income students by nearly 50%.

The socioeconomic divide in the pandemic’s impact on college students mirrors emerging evidence from K-12 education. A team of researchers associated with Opportunity Insights found that students from lower income areas decreased their participation in online learning as the pandemic progressed (Chetty et al. 2020). Another recent working paper found that, after COVID-19 disrupted in-person education, higher-income regions saw twice the increase in internet searches for online educational resources compared to lower-income regions (Bacher-Hicks et al. 2020). Taken together, the existing body of evidence paints a clear picture that the pandemic has been significantly more disruptive to disadvantaged students across all levels of education, a fact which may have long-lasting implications for intergenerational mobility, income inequality, and health disparities, among other things.

While the disproportionate burden COVID-19 placed on lower-income students is disheartening, it also provides crucial insight into why the pandemic impacted students in the first place. The effect of the pandemic on students’ health and financial stability appears to modulate its effects on their academic outcomes, suggesting that policies that target these ‘first-order’ effects of the pandemic may minimise both the socioeconomic disparities and overall disruption caused by the pandemic.

Universities have few levers to directly alleviate the financial and health constraints imposed by COVID-19 but they can adopt policies which serve to prevent these underlying effects from disrupting students' academic success. The specific policy prescriptions may look different at each university, but we believe increasing the flexibility of university policies is a general principle that applies in many settings. For example, allowing students to easily adjust their course load, timing of assignments, tuition payment schedule, or mode of instruction would allow them to make reactive decisions and minimise the disruption to their education as the pandemic progresses.

Likewise, allowing students to easily switch between online and in-person classes would allow them to choose the option which best fits their specific and variable housing, work, and health situations. Allowing students to defer tuition payments if they suddenly become unable to pay due to COVID-19 provides valuable insurance to students who may otherwise choose to delay enrolment until more certain times. Flexibility can even extend into the classroom; providing students a more flexible assignment schedule may allow them to more easily adapt to changes in their work schedule or family commitments which arise due to COVID-19. These suggestions do impose additional costs (monetary or otherwise) on universities, but may be necessary to prevent widening gaps in higher education.

There is a crucial window of opportunity as the fall semester draws near. While researchers have only just begun to unwind the complex effects of COVID-19, we should use the emerging body of evidence to guide policy in real time and limit the long-term consequences of inaction.


Aucejo, E, J French, M P Ugalde Araya and B Zafar (2020), “The Impact of COVID-19 on Student Experiences and Expectations: Evidence from a Survey”, NBER Working Paper 27392.

Bacher-Hicks, A, J Goodman and C Mulhern (2020), “Inequality in Household Adaptation to Schooling Shocks: Covid-Induced Online Learning Engagement in Real Time”, NBER Working Paper 27555.

Chetty, R, J N Friedman, N Hendren and M Stepner (2020), “How Did COVID-19 and Stabilization Policies Affect Spending and Employment? A New Real-Time Economic Tracker Based on Private Sector Data”.

Dolton, P (2020), “The COVID-19 pandemic is causing a crisis in the UK universities”,, 31 May.

Duncan, G J and R J Murnane (2011), “Inequality in Postsecondary Education”, in Whither opportunity? Rising inequality, schools, and children’s life chances, Russell Sage Foundation; Spencer Foundation, pp. 119–131.

Kuhfeld, M, J Soland, B Tarasawa, A Johnson, E Ruzek and J Liu (2020), “Projecting the potential impacts of COVID-19 school closures on academic achievement”, EdWorkingPaper 20-226.

Rothstein, J (2020), “The Lost Generation? Labor Market Outcomes for Post Great Recession Entrants”.



Topics:  Covid-19 Education

Tags:  COVID-19, higher education, university, Inequality

Associate Professor, Arizona State University

Ph.D. student in Economics, Arizona State University

Ph.D. student in Economics, Arizona State University

Professor of Economics, Arizona State University


CEPR Policy Research