When universities announced that all students had one to two weeks to vacate campus, time was ticking for students to figure out how to handle this unprecedented mandate. For some students, this meant a quick flight home to be with their family; for others, they had no idea what to do, knowing only that this meant life as they knew it was changing forever.
COVID-19 hit the United States unexpectedly, and in its spread, students started to see, feel, and experience just how unprepared universities are to protect them in case of an emergency. While universities—like the rest of society—are neither responsible for the current crisis, nor prepared to address it, they are certainly more able to respond to it than their students are; and they must do more as we move forward to support low-income, first-generation students in particular, to stay enrolled, supported, and connected, and to facilitate the transition back to in-person education.
While universities—like the rest of society—are neither responsible for the current crisis, nor prepared to address it, they are certainly more able to respond to it than their students are; and they must do more as we move forward to support low-income, first-generation students in particular.
The earliest cases of COVID-19 were discovered in late 2019. However, on March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, and it was only then that the United States began responding in full force. Institutions of higher education followed suit, rapidly taking actions they’ve never taken before, including abruptly ending classes and forcing college students to figure out next steps without guidance or support.
Having to suddenly make life-altering decisions about higher education is difficult for anyone, but especially difficult for one particular demographic: low-income, first-generation students, young adults who don’t have resources at their fingertips and are navigating the higher education system with no assistance or family with prior experience.
The reality is that the fight for low-income, first-generation college students begins the minute they decide to apply for college. Entrance exams, applications, financial aid, and moving expenses pile up and typically present themselves early on as a barrier. Once on campus, maintaining mental health while juggling class, jobs, and trying to do extracurricular activities can become overwhelming. Only ten percent of low-income, first generation students have enrolled and attained a certificate by six years.
We attend school to focus on class and further our knowledge; however, most students must spend a lot of their time focusing on meeting basic needs. Studies reveal that 9 percent of college students struggle specifically with reliable housing and report anxiety about having enough food.
And that’s in the best of times—when universities are providing some of these resources. Think what a quick decision to close the doors to an entire university could mean for the students who rely on these resources. This dramatically impacts many of them, with the international students and students without homes among them facing especially steep challenges, as neither may have accessible backup plans for covering the necessities. In these challenging times, universities have a responsibility to take care of both themselves and their students. Low-income first-generation college students always get the short end of the stick, and it’s never been more urgent that the trend come to end.
Universities’ Responsibility to Their Students
When college acceptance letters are distributed and students accept the colleges they’ll attend, there’s an agreement made between both parties. The student agrees to make payments, attend classes, and complete coursework, and abide by the university’s various policies. In return, the university agrees to provide essential services and support to students to ensure the experience is mutual. The uncertainty and confusion that was brought about by COVID-19 was an additional burden for first-generation, low-income students, and this contract was broken by universities. Though many of the implications of the current situation are outside of university control, when a university does not uphold their end of the bargain and fails to support students to the best of their ability, they fail students and our entire higher education system.
Thirty-one percent of all U.S. undergraduate students received Pell Grants for the 2018–2019 school year. Pell Grants are distributed to students who are said to have “exceptional financial need” and can run as high as $6,345. While grants help students significantly, the difficulties of supporting themselves independently persists. In a survey conducted by Rise, a student advocate organization, we learn that 28 percent of students are lacking access to healthy meals during this pandemic, and that the students most likely to bear the brunt of this challenge are first-generation, low-income students. We know that hunger impacts ability to do well academically; but we would do well to restate what should be obvious, but too often goes unsaid: that hunger also significantly impacts mental and physical health, making it extremely difficult to survive.
Where to be physically is another incredibly difficult decision. Moving away from home, whether in the same town, a few states over, or across the country, is always a difficult experience for these students. Marginalized students experience an extra barrier in that many rely on the universities they are attending for housing. In their survey, Rise learned that 17 percent of students are lacking reliable and safe housing since being asked to leave campus. While university housing is historically regarded as subpar for all students, for some, it represents consistent housing and a relied-upon part of their experience at university. Housing is one of the most anxiety-inducing factors for students—having it taken away abruptly is harmful.
Similar to Pell Grants, many students receive a Federal Work Study Award. These awards are also given to students with financial barriers and require an application. Many undergraduate students who receive Federal Work Study rely heavily on this income to support themselves through the school year. Fifty-seven percent of students reported they either had been laid off or had their hours cut significantly, causing them to lose access to the stable income needed to persist through COVID.
Although not as fundamental as how they got their housing, food, or income, one of the most memorable moments for first-generation, low-income students is the moment they finish. The best day of my life was—and still is—the day my family drove from Memphis to Washington, D.C. to watch me graduate. It represented history for me and our entire family. It was the day I worked so hard for. Students everywhere are having that moment taken away from them after years of fighting and overcoming many obstacles. Walking across the stage is so much more than a stroll to receive a degree. For a first-generation college student, it’s confirmation that the impossible can be done and was done.
And yet COVID-19 will take that away for so many of these students as well. For many wealthier students, this will be a bump in the road—the semester they had to learn via Zoom from their parents’ living room. But for many low-income, first-generation college students, for whom a seemingly minor setback can throw them off course, this massive disruption could send them packing—for good.
What Universities Can—and Should—Do Now
Many people discuss the frustrations of marginalized students, but COVID-19 exposes the main problem that low-income, first-generation students face: the reality of how one decision, one event, or one disaster can change the entire course of their day, semester, or, in this case, their entire life. If you are already struggling financially and trying to maintain at once your grades, your mental health, and your financial responsibilities, just the idea of an unexpected life-altering circumstance hurts your chances of retention. Students are currently having to choose between dedicating time and resources to attend class virtually at a university that is not supporting them or, frankly, surviving. No one planned for a global pandemic, and while we can’t expect perfection in responses and actions, we can expect responsibility.
Higher education institutions, the vast majority of which are tax exempt and many of which have significant endowments, simply must do a better job of supporting their vulnerable students at this time. The most valuable people are the people who, despite many adversities, fight for academic excellence and financial freedom, and they choose to do so at your institution. It’s imperative that we do better. Recently, the federal government passed its stimulus package, giving support to different institutions that directly impact other people. The CARES Act included $14 billion dollars to higher education institutions—half being required to go to students in the form of emergency grants and the other half to be used at their discretion.
Universities’ responses may depend upon their circumstances, their resources, and their dedication to their students, but could include the following:
Provide free counseling and mental health services.
It could be a very meaningful support to create a program designed for students who would qualify for a transitional program to receive advising. Before this current crisis, a lot of universities had already begun to offer programs for low-income and/or first-generation students before the school year starts. These programs provide students with different types of support—often including financial, mental health, and academic aspects. If universities have the resources and range to offer this type of help to students before enrollment, they have them to create programs that help in the midst of a crisis.
Offer support for remote learning.
Universities must provide resources for students who lack the tools they need to complete their coursework. Most universities have decided to switch to distance learning, relying heavily on laptops, personal computers, and smartphones, still a point of privilege for many Americans. Twenty percent of students have reported a lack of reliable access to a mobile device or wifi. Since universities will receive funding from the federal government, they should use a portion of this to ensure all students have the materials needed to attend classes and complete coursework under these new circumstances.
Support students in meeting their basic needs.
We know that the two most expenses that students face are housing and food. Continuing to provide meals despite the closure would not only keep workers employed, but it would also feed students. Housing is another large expense: having students pick up and leave campus presents a barrier for lots of students, and universities could lessen this hardship by providing housing stipends for students without houses to go back to or maintain.
Actively support student retention, similar to the support given to recruitment.
We typically see universities continuously pour money into recruitment, but this year, enrollment and retainment will be dependent on how hard hit students’ families are by the COVID-19 crisis. So why not be proactive in supporting the students who will eventually help the university? Split the recruitment budget to include support on retention.
In order to combat the possibility of 90 percent of students not finishing their degree, universities must step up in this unprecedented time with unprecedented support. Retention, graduation, and satisfaction rates impact universities just as the actions taken to increase those rates benefit students. The contract between universities and students represents an agreement that is miniscule to one party but life-altering to the other. The only way for our higher education system to succeed post-pandemic is for it to prioritize supporting the students who dedicate their entire well-being to succeeding at universities across the country.