POLITICS

Low-Income College Kids Are Walking A Knife’s Edge In The Wake Of School Closures

"Some of these students are not going to return to college," a professor said.

A growing number of colleges and universities have canceled in-person classes this semester to combat the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus that’s now a pandemic. For the tens of thousands of students who rely on their schools for housing and food, this disruption is going to be particularly painful.

“It’s going to be so financially stressful … some of these students are not going to return to college,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University. 

A survey that Goldrick-Rab and other researchers conducted with 86,000 students matriculated at 123 colleges in 2019 found that 45% reported being food insecure in the past month, while 56% were housing insecure and 17% were homeless in the past year. These issues are a hidden crisis on campuses across the country, Goldrick-Rab said. 

Many of these students rely on their university for housing, jobs and food. While some universities have said that students can stay in their dorms and receive access to dining and facilities, guidance has often been inconsistent and unclear. In some cases, students have been told that while they’ll be allowed to stay on campus in extenuating circumstances, their access to dining will be severely limited.

For students who may not have access to their own computer or the internet when their classes go online, the situation is even more dire. 

Goldrick-Rab, who has already heard from “tons” of “absolutely terrified” housing- and food-insecure students, said this semester could change the trajectory of these students’ lives.

“These students are on the knife’s edge of being able to afford college or falling into poverty at any moment,” she said. “They’re telling me things like all the food is gone, they paid for their campus meal plan, and they’re not going to get it.” 

These students are on the knife’s edge of being able to afford college or falling into poverty at any moment. They’re telling me things like all the food is gone, they paid for their campus meal plan, and they’re not going to get it. Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University.

Until recently, SUNY New Paltz junior Bryce Mack identified as one of those students. Last year, Mack attended Nassau Community College. His family was homeless and living in a hotel. He relied on the school’s food bank to feed him and his family.

“It really saved my life and my parents’ life as well,” Mack, whose family members recently got back on their feet and are living in their own place, told HuffPost. “If we had this epidemic during that time, I don’t know where I would be right now.”

On Wednesday, the SUNY system announced it would extend spring break and then transition to online learning for the rest of the semester. Mack and his peers are currently in midterms. Between studying and all-nighters, they’re figuring out if they’re going home, where they’ll be going home to, and what the rest of their semester will look like. 

“I don’t know how you achieve in the classroom if you’re worried about where you’re going to get your food,” Mack said. 

A number of alumni at schools have set up spreadsheets to pool resources for students who may need help paying for a plane ticket home or need somewhere to stay. 

Mona Sinha, a 1988 Smith College alum, says her college’s spreadsheet is filled with offers like “rides to the airport, gift cards for GrubHub or car services, a quiet place to study with free wifi, cold brew and snacks.” Sinha, who lives in New York City, offered financial support to students. She received about five emails within four minutes of posting, she said, all from students in high-need situations who requested money to get home. 

The students have sent her messages saying “you’re truly a godsend,” and “I didn’t know what I was going to do.”

But Goldrick-Rab is quick to note that private universities with large endowments are the ones that should be leading on these issues. While these universities do serve clusters of low-income students, poorer students are most heavily concentrated in institutions like community colleges. She worries, too, about the financial repercussions community colleges will face as a result of these disruptions, particularly when it comes to re-enrollment.

“I am worried they can’t handle it,” she said. 

Goldrick-Rab has been working for years to try and change the public perception of what the average college student currently looks like. She believes the public still thinks of college kids as people with two employed parents who can come pick them up when they need to go home or provide financial support as needed. 

“I think the average person thinks the student is going to go home to a little vacation. I think they think it’s going to be a snow day. It’s not going to be a snow day. It’s going to be really hard,” she said.

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