Studying the Ways CUNY Has Helped Students Cope During COVID

March 10, 2022

Professor Núria Rodríguez-Planas aims to measure the pandemic’s effects on students and to figure out which interventions are most helpful.

Núria Rodríguez-Planas
Núria Rodríguez-Planas (courtesy of Rodríguez-Planas)

Professor Núria Rodríguez-Planas (GC/Queens, Economics) is known for her research on how educational practices and policies affect students, particularly low-income students. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, she turned her attention to the students at CUNY, many of whom come from low-income backgrounds.  

“This pandemic was devastating for most of us,” says Rodríguez-Planas. “But anecdotal evidence seemed to suggest that it was more so for the most vulnerable individuals. I was particularly worried about CUNY students, as many come from humble backgrounds and have economic and family responsibilities. Others are disenfranchised. I wanted to document not only how the pandemic was impacting CUNY students overall but especially the most vulnerable CUNY students, with the objective to be better informed on what their needs were.” 

Through a series of studies — two concluded and two underway — Rodríguez-Planas is uncovering important information that can help CUNY administrators and other higher education leaders understand the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on students’ well-being and ability to stay in school and how university initiatives can help students overcome hardship.  

Rodríguez-Planas is currently evaluating the effectiveness of two CUNY policies: the Chancellor’s Emergency Relief Fund, which distributes one-time, $500 grants to qualifying CUNY students to help cover basic living expenses; and a workshop in resilience thinking that seeks to help students identify challenges in their community and to empower them to lead change. She recently received a CUNY Interdisciplinary Research Grant for the resilience thinking study.  

With those projects in progress, she is also reflecting on the results of two recent studies she authored on the pandemic’s effects. One investigated the degree to which the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted students’ academic expectations and economic outcomes. The other looked at the differences in the effects of the pandemic across lower- and higher-income students’ academic performance and how CUNY’s flexible grading policy affected those differences. 

She found that the pandemic had a significant effect on students’ lives.  

“Because of the pandemic,” Rodríguez-Planas wrote in the study, which was published in April in the Economics of Education Review, “between 14% and 34% of the students considered dropping a class during spring 2020, 30% modified their graduation plans, and the freshman fall retention rate dropped by 26%. The pandemic also deprived 39% of the students of their jobs and reduced the earnings of 35% and the expected household income of 64%.”  

For lower-income students who qualified for Federal Pell Grants, the toll was even greater. 

“The economic consequences are grimmer for Pell recipients,” the study continues, “as they were 20% more likely to lose a job due to the pandemic and 17% more likely to experience earning losses than never Pell recipients.” 

Rodríguez-Planas’ study of flexible grading, however, suggested that certain interventions might go some distance toward ameliorating these outcomes.  

Published in the March issue of the Journal of Public Economics, the study found that Pell recipients — whose funding depends in part on maintaining a certain grade point average (GPA)— saw outsize benefits from the flexible grading policy, which offered students the option of a pass/fail assessment rather than a letter grade. The study found, for example, that Pell recipients in the bottom quartile for GPA chose the pass/fail grading option much more often than did non-Pell recipients in the same GPA quartile and doing so helped their averages.  

“In some ways,” Rodríguez-Planas says, “the flexible grading policy was a social justice mechanism. Was flexible grading useful? Yes. It was useful for everybody. Did it increase or help the grades of students? Yes. But this was particularly true for lower-income students, regardless of whether they were low- or high-performing students.” 

Rodríguez-Planas is quick to note that the data may not capture all the causes of the overall increase in GPA, and that she is now looking at the medium-term effects of the policy on student performance. But she does see potential lessons in the findings from her research to date. 

“We’ve learned that students have suffered from the pandemic,” she says, “and we can now measure that. Second, and I want to be cautious at this point in drawing conclusions from our findings about flexible grading, but I think when there’s a crisis, it makes sense to use [flexible grading], and it’s also good to know that it seems to be more helpful for the more vulnerable students.” 

Another implication, Rodríguez-Planas observes, is that students are paying close attention to the University policies and initiatives that pertain to them. 

“Students are making choices,” she says. “The data do seem to say that students respond to incentives, and they seem to be sufficiently well informed to do so differentially based on their needs.” 

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