US Air Force photo by 2nd Lt. Megan Morrissey.

March 12, 2020; New York Times

All college students are not created equal. When colleges and universities abruptly extend their spring breaks, shut their doors, and convert all classes to online instruction in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, many students struggle. They don’t have the means to go home and learn remotely.

“Harvard expects us to go home,” recounts one low-income undergraduate. “But home for a lot of us is this campus…(and this closing) felt like an eviction notice.”

Some students lack the travel resources to return home and the funds to store or ship their belongings. Others worry about the wages earned from on-campus jobs they will no longer be able to send back to their families. Away from campus and at home, some lack access to computers or internet connections. Those who use their phones to get online may have limited data plans, insufficient to suddenly handle online coursework. And there’s research showing that students who aren’t well prepared for college tend not to do as well with online learning.

Then there’s the growing awareness of food insecurity on campus. A recent study of Harvard undergraduates reported that one out of seven stayed on campus during spring break because they needed their dining halls to eat.

But it’s not just family income that makes it difficult, if not impossible for certain college students to continue their studies at home. For some, “home and harm are synonymous.” These students, whether because of sexual orientation, domestic violence, neighborhood crime, or political orientation, have tumultuous relationships with their families and communities. Where are they supposed to go when college dorms suddenly shut their doors?

Unequal Institutions

Like college students, the nation’s higher education institutions are also not created equal when it comes to their balance sheets. The colleges that told students to leave are largely the richer ones and can write off lost revenue. Harvard, for example—the nation’s wealthiest, with an endowment of $40.9 billion—will help its students cover the costs of storing and shipping their belongings and will pay some or all of students’ travel costs, prorated to their level of financial aid. This institution has committed to adjusting the percentage of its semester’s financial aid package that will be tied to “term-time work expectations,”—i.e., campus jobs. And Harvard will offer prorated room and board refunds for the time that the campus is closed.

But what about poorer institutions? Less affluent institutions have taken less draconian measures, keeping dorms and dining halls open for those who cannot or will not go home to study online. Within the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, the relatively prosperous West Chester University, with an endowment surpassing $40 million, quickly transitioned to remote learning and closed its campus for the rest of the semester. This university will provide laptops and iPads to students who don’t have technology at home and is boosting its network’s capacity to handle nearly 18,000 students’ demand for online learning. Also, students will be refunded for some of the money they’ve already paid for this semester, including what they paid for parking tags and fees to use the campus recreation center.

But Mansfield University, part of the same system, with an endowment of just $1 million and where more than 75 percent of students get federal grants (compared to 44 percent at West Chester), is giving students the option of staying on campus because many do not have the requisite computer and internet resources off-campus. This institution is working to provide other options for students whose work study job is no longer needed, and the residence and dining halls and library are still open.

This wealth gap among colleges plays out in their decisions of whether to refund housing and meal plan fees. For a wealthy institution like Harvard, these fees make up less than four percent of operating revenues. But many schools rely on these fees—called auxiliary fees—to support their operations and refunds could be devastating. “Significant refunds will cause real problems at many institutions. It will just be worse for those with tighter or deficit budgets.”

Well-resourced institutions also have better access to the technological help that makes going online possible. Many have centers for teaching and learning with support staff who can help faculty think about how to make the switch on short notice.

Campus Workers

There are also concerns about the impact of school closures on nonacademic workers and those employed by contractors. At Washington University in St. Louis, around 300 workers from the Bon Appetit Management Company serve the campus. But reduced operations due to a shut campus mean that 50 or fewer are required. The university says it will continue to pay these workers for the rest of the fiscal year and that there will be no layoffs before the summer break. But this university had a $1.39 billion surplus at the end of FY 2018. The $17 million annual Bon Appetit contract, though not to be sneered out, is a very small piece of its $2.29 billion annual budget.

Through the Equity Lens

The Center for First-Generation Student Success urges higher-ed institutions to ask themselves these questions when they decide how to respond to COVID-19, and they are a powerful tool for applying an equity lens to disasters like a pandemic:

  • What campus or local housing opportunities are available to students who don’t have safe or habitable conditions to return to?
  • Will dining halls and food pantries be available to students?
  • What emergency aid funds can help cover the cost of return travel and relocation?
  • Will students have work study or campus employment positions available?
  • Will campus computer labs be open and laptop loaner programs be expanded?
  • Do all students have ready access to the internet?
  • How will institutions provide instructional and troubleshooting support for online learning?
  • If students don’t have access to classrooms or libraries, will textbooks and other hardcopy resources be available online?
  • If students become ill and can’t visit the campus-based health clinic (if open), where should they go to get affordable healthcare? Will the visit be covered by their student health insurance?
  • How is this information being communicated to families for whom English is not their primary language?

The COVID-19 pandemic is showing us how unequal our campuses truly are for students with limited means and options. Public health is a priority, but all college students and college institutions are not equally equipped to respond.—Debby Warren