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Higher Education Is Woefully Unprepared to Help Poor Students Amid Coronavirus

Low-income students will be hurt the most by the lack of institutional preparedness.

Towson University students remove their belongings from the dorms as the school shuts down days before the start of the scheduled spring break on March 11, 2020, in Towson, Maryland.

New York — The minute colleges began shutting down amidst coronavirus concerns this week, researcher and author Anthony Abraham Jack worried about the many low-income students he mentors.

Where would they go? (Some don’t have homes that easily welcome them back.)

How would they get there? (Scholarships don’t always come with extra travel money for emergencies.)

Where would they eat, once their cafeterias closed down? Would there be refunds? What about lost wages from jobs many use to help families back home? And more immediately, where would they store all their books, clothing and belongings?

As colleges across the U.S. have announced transitions to online learning, they can’t definitively answer many of these questions, nor can they say when and if students will return to campus. And scholars like Jack are among those who are pushing hard for new attention to poor students who are once again being left behind.

“For colleges to just send out an email saying stay home after spring break assumes that you have a home to go to, or a place to stay for extended time that is safe,” said Jack, now a faculty fellow on leave from Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education. “There are students who have a far more precarious home situation.”

After some of his former students got news of Harvard’s closing this week, many immediately called Jack and organized a group meeting, where they questioned the wisdom of swiftly emptying campus. Similar closings are piling up rapidly in states hit hardest by the virus, forcing immediate changes that many say higher education is woefully unprepared for.

Politicians are taking notice: Democratic Representatives Karen Bass of California and Danny Davis of Illinois are calling on colleges to take care of the most vulnerable students affected by the coronavirus, while Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, offered guidelines for colleges with fewer resources. She called on colleges to keep food pantries open, loan out laptops and wi-fi hotspots and let uninsured students know how Medicaid can pay for emergency screenings and treatment.

“A number of us have been telling institutions for years that they have to get ready, you can’t keep doing things the same old way,” said Goldrick-Rab, who runs the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple and noted that poor students are poised to suffer the most. Around half of community college students and as many as a third of those at four-year colleges and universities already have issues around food and housing insecurity, she said.

Goldrick-Rab and her partners at the student-led group Rise and Edquity, where she serves as chief strategy officer, set up an emergency aid fund for students and pledged to match the first $5,000 raised. In addition to offering guidelines to help students, Goldrick-Rab said she spent the day fielding frantic phone calls from colleagues all over the country who have very little idea of how to teach online and have to figure it out immediately.

“I’m watching them literally try to figure out what Zoom is,” she said, referring to the video conferencing platform. As she answered surveys from Temple about her ability to teach online, she also worried about the students who can’t access the internet where they live and may end up not finishing the semester.

“It’s interesting to watch online instruction debuted as a solution, but the sweep of all of this reveals inequality in all its ugliness,” said Goldrick-Rab, who believes simply ending instruction for the year is the most equitable solution. “This is education disruption with real consequences.”

Frederick Lawrence, secretary of the honor society Phi Beta Kappa, noted that some colleges and universities have been providing resources to cover emergency student travel, along with help finding housing off campus. “Because not every institution can afford to do so, inequalities may be experienced in this way as well,’’ he said.

In the meantime, concerts, tests, tournaments, auditions, tours and admitted student days across the U.S. are all being cancelled. There’s been no guidance about when and if planned graduations will go on as usual, in part because no one is sure how long quarantines will last. The abrupt college closings are ending treasured rituals and rites of passage at many four-year institutions: spring break trips, plays, operas, dissertation presentations, senior recitals and sports seasons.

They are also forcing colleges to pay attention to the kinds of students The Hechinger Report has been writing about for years, who are vastly underrepresented on elite campuses and may carry staggering debt loads.

It is the low-income scholarship students Jack worries most about, because it wasn’t too long ago he was one himself. Jack graduated from Amherst College on a scholarship in 2007 and remembers being unable to get home to Florida during Hurricane Katrina. His own experience of feeling out of place led to the publication last year of “The Privileged Poor,” his acclaimed book on how elite colleges fail disadvantaged students.

By Wednesday afternoon, Harvard had gotten so many questions that the university had put out written guidelines for students on financial aid and pledged to help with storing, shipping and other costs, as the list of colleges sending students home grew ever larger. Some seniors realized that their on-campus college experience may have come to an abrupt and permanent end.

At the same time, some colleges, including the University of Chicago, pledged to keep dorms open for students who can’t go home. “The University will continue to provide housing, dining, health, and other resources to students for whom travel restrictions or other circumstances require them to remain on campus for Spring Quarter,” the school said on Thursday, as further disruptions, closings and new rules were being announced nationwide.

“I think the coronavirus is the external shock to the higher-ed system that will shine the light on inequality that has previously been ignored,” Jack said. “The closures highlight how our procedures are just as classed as our college campuses are.”

This story on the impact of coronavirus on higher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for The Hechinger Report newsletter.

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