For low-income college students, COVID-19 worries mount
Editor’s note: CHN Intern Abby Huebler is a senior at the University of Delaware, where she is double-majoring in Economics and Environmental Studies, and minoring in Geography.
For many college students, COVID-19 has become an inconvenience and created a series of disappointments. Students miss their friends, have had events or sports cancelled, missed out on a traditional graduation, and had to deal with a transition to online classes. But for low-income students, COVID-19 has presented a much more dire situation. Uncertainty about how many universities will handle a new semester come August has not eased the situation for many students who rely on their schools for housing and food security.
As I packed my bags to leave my off-campus housing and come home from school in March, for what I thought would be a couple weeks, I said goodbye to my friends and left in disappointment that I no longer had my on-campus job and many spring semester events I had been looking forward to had just been cancelled. But I arrived home to a house with two parents, both still employed, where I could comfortably and privately complete my classes online.
For many low-income students, however, campus closings mean a loss of secure housing and effective work spaces, loss of access to dining plans and campus food banks, and ultimately a loss of resources that has created an increased vulnerability to issues already being experienced by college students nationwide. A 2018 survey by the Hope Center at Temple University revealed that 45 percent of respondents from more than 100 institutions nationwide had experienced food insecurity, a number likely to be exacerbated by the COVID-19 outbreak.
From continuing to have to make rent payments to taking on responsibilities of caring for family members, low-income students are vulnerable to changes in financial and living situations that might prohibit them from graduation from college when they expected to or at all. “She worried she would have to withdraw from classes last month after her Internet kept going down during a class designed to prepare students for a midterm,” the Washington Post said about Maria Romo-Gonzalez, a senior at the University of California–Berkeley.
14 percent of the lowest–income students earn a bachelor’s degree within the first eight years after starting college –– in the best conditions. Conditions created now, including loss of income, cramped living situations, and lack of internet access, puts pressure on those who were already statistically less likely to graduate. The risk of dropping out is growing for low-income students. “It would be really hard not to finish my classes because I’ve worked extremely hard to get to where I am now…But it would be hard if I lost my house, too,” Consuela Robinson told the Post.
As colleges and universities consider plans for the coming semester, resources vital to their low-income students need to be prioritized. Many schools are implementing plans to hold fewer students in residence halls, while in previous years, colleges have packed students into campus housing and experienced housing shortages due to enrollment increases. Virginia Tech plans to house 12 percent fewer students than usual to increase physical distancing and make quarantine housing available, while already having a history of having to move students in to hotels due to a lack of space in residence halls. The Washington Post also cited a tweet from Virginia Tech stating that they will not offer dining plans to off-campus residents. How a greater shortage of housing and less access to food will affect low-income students is a question that universities will have to address in coming months.
I continue to be concerned about the quality of my education if it continues to be online, but I am especially fearful for those who are at a greater risk of being unable to continue their education at all as the pandemic continues and re-opening plans by universities do not address the needs of their most vulnerable students.