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Professor Paul Attewell Receives Nearly $250K from DOE to Study How COVID-19 Has Affected CUNY Students

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The enormous disruption to education over the past year from COVID-19 has affected an estimated 1.6 billion students in more than 190 countries, according to a policy brief from the United Nations.

A new study funded by a $248,971 grant from the Institute for Education Sciences of the U.S. Department of Education hits closer to home. Led by Professor Paul Attewell (Sociology, Urban Education, Social Welfare), this study will follow undergraduates at The City University of New York to understand the immediate and longer-term impacts of COVID-19 disruptions on their education and employment. 

The study will follow 217,000 students using administrative data to chart the educational effects of the pandemic crisis and document how preexisting inequalities are exacerbated or overcome. 

“This project will determine which kinds of students have had their educational plans derailed and which are managing OK.,” Attewell said, adding “The project will follow students for several years to determine how their educational outcomes have been affected.”

Of special interest to CUNY, the project will also document whether specific support programs at the university, such as CUNY's Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, or ASAP, aided recovery or otherwise lessened the longer-term impacts of the crisis.

Attewell has devoted his past research to understanding educational access and degree completion. The Graduate Center spoke to him about this new study and his goals for it. 

The Graduate Center: How do you hope/plan to apply the findings from this study or hope they will be used?

Attewell: I hope that our results will inform the efforts of administrators and others who focus on student retention and success, letting them know which kinds of students have taken the biggest education hit from the COVID upheaval, and advocating for special outreach efforts for those students. 

GC: Now that we're almost a year out from the New York City shutdown, do you have any hunches or even preliminary results? Do early findings suggest a longer-term or more severe impact on undergraduates from the pandemic?

Attewell: Very preliminary results suggest that the COVID crisis so far has not resulted in much larger than normal numbers of CUNY undergraduates dropping out of college. That was what I feared, but in the main that has not happened and if anything, undergrads have been dropping out in smaller numbers since COVID. 

However, there have been big drops in numbers of first-time enrollments and transfers into CUNY. So, among the generation of high school graduates who would normally have entered CUNY in fall 2020, a substantial number have not yet entered college. They are holding off. Maybe this will reverse itself once the medical and economic crises are overcome. But for now, a generation of high school leavers has not made the transition to college. First-time enrollments of students of color and economically disadvantaged students in particular are down.

GC: Are Graduate Center students working with you on this project? 

Attewell: My main research assistant on the project so far is a recent graduate from The Graduate Center’s Master’s Program in Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences. He has been building and cleaning data sets on hundreds of thousands of undergraduates and will help me analyze those anonymous data. I currently employ several doctoral students on my other research grants and need to obtain additional research funding to enable some to join this COVID impact project.

Submitted on: FEB 24, 2021

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