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It’s no secret that the coronavirus pandemic poses many dangers to American higher education.

In some ways, the dangers facing individual colleges and universities are no different than those facing the rest of our society and economy — lost revenues and increased costs, leading to program cuts and layoffs, or worse, for many institutions.

The biggest danger that higher education faces as a sector, though, is the loss of gains that we have made over the past 20 years in access to a college education — with all of the accompanying benefits to individuals and our entire society — for first-generation and minority students.

Those gains are solid, but they have not come fast enough, and they remain fragile. This pandemic is a perfect storm that could wash away hard-won progress.

Related: Analysis: hundreds of colleges and universities show financial warning signs

Last year, my organization, the American Council on Education, released a report showing that while communities of color have made tremendous educational headway over the last several decades, substantial and pervasive inequities remain. Now is not the time to lose focus.

If you look at data from the National Center for Education Statistics, you can see steady gains made between 2000 and 2018. For instance, the percentage of Black people between the ages of 18 and 24 who enrolled in college increased to 37 percent from 31 percent, and to 36 percent from 22 percent for Latino people in that same age group.

That compares favorably to an overall five percentage-point gain for the total U.S. population and a 3 percentage-point increase for white people. And the six-year graduation rates for first-time, full-time degree-seeking students at four-year institutions also saw gains for Black people, to 42 percent from 40 percent, and Latinos, to 57 percent from 50 percent, compared to an overall increase to 62 percent from 58 percent (66 percent for white people, a 4 percentage-point increase).

The pandemic threatens to undo all of these even modest gains, and certainly imperils progress among students of color and low-income students.

A Strada Public Viewpoint survey released in June found that Black and Latino students are more likely than white students to have changed or canceled their education plans because of the pandemic. Half of Latino students and 42 percent of Black students reported having changed or canceled their plans, compared to 26 percent of white students.

A National Bureau of Economic Research study by researchers from Arizona State University found that first-generation college students are 50 percent more likely to have delayed graduation due to Covid-19 than students who have college-educated parents.

Another troubling finding, from a survey conducted this spring by SimpsonScarborough: Forty-one percent of minority high-school seniors say it’s likely they won’t go to college at all in the fall or “it’s too soon to say,” compared to 24 percent of white high-school seniors.

Another major impediment for too many students already struggling to begin or continue their higher-education path: a lack of access to high-speed internet. As Jamienne Studley and I discussed in a recent Hechinger Report op-ed, the reality is that millions of Americans — in rural and urban areas alike, and including many underrepresented minorities — lack the reliable broadband connections needed to access postsecondary and K-12 education in a nation that remains in partial lockdown.

A recent ACT survey of college-bound high school students found that while nearly all students have access to the internet, 14 percent have “unpredictable” or “terrible” connections, and the predicament is aggravated for first-generation and minority students.

Contributing to the potential for the pandemic to increase educational equity gaps are concerns about worsening family financial and health situations. Low-income and minority Americans are more likely to struggle to cope with job losses or reduced wages, and they disproportionately suffer from more severe Covid-related illnesses.

All of this could be driving the numbers of people who are rethinking whether to begin or continue their higher educations. It certainly is something that virtually all college presidents worry about: A survey released in June by Inside Higher Ed found that 93 percent of college and university presidents are either somewhat or very concerned about the disproportionate impact on students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The impact could be devastating both for individuals and for our society as a whole. Higher education is America’s most effective engine of economic and social mobility, and it plays a historically important role in creating a thriving democracy.

Related: OPINION: College in a pandemic is tough enough without reliable broadband access, it’s nearly impossible

Individuals with postsecondary degrees earn more, pay more taxes and are more likely than others to be employed, according to the College Board’s Education Pays 2019. In 2018, the median annual earnings of bachelor’s degree recipients with no advanced degree who were working full-time were $24,900 higher than those with only a high-school diploma.

But the benefits of a higher education are not simply economic. Having a college degree is associated with reduced unemployment, a healthier lifestyle, lower health care costs and higher levels of civic engagement.

These trends put all of that at risk, and could take us a generation to work our way out of unless we act now. What needs to happen?

The $6.3 billion that Congress explicitly included for emergency aid to students in the CARES Act was just a down payment on what is required, which is why we have asked for more in the next Covid-19 supplement that Congress is working on now. We also are calling on Congress to increase federal student financial aid by at least $12 billion.

Campus supports include providing increased online mental and physical health support and mentoring, as well as working to ease the hunger of food-insecure students.

Increased campus technology assistance to students is also key. There are several steps that policymakers can and should take to shrink the digital divide, including having Congress allocate emergency funding to schools and libraries that expand broadband access to their communities.

All of this can seem overwhelming: to students and their families, to institutions struggling to cope with declining revenues and increased costs, and to policymakers being hit with many competing demands for assistance.

But we must tackle these problems head on — and we must do so now.

This story about access to U.S. higher education and the coronavirus pandemic was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Ted Mitchell is president of the American Council on Education.

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