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College reopenings — and closures — are harming low-income students

As some colleges make the last-minute decision to go remote, students scramble to move home or find local housing.

Students check in to the NYU dorms in the East Village as the city continues Phase 4 of re-opening.
Students move into New York University’s dorms in the East Village as the institution prepares to start a mix of in-person and online classes on September 2.
Noam Galai/Getty Images

“All of this could’ve been avoided,” sophomore Jarrah Faye told me, one day after the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced that all of its classes will be remote for the fall semester. The university had held in-person learning for only a week prior to its closure on August 17. Within that week, four coronavirus clusters were reported on campus (six additional outbreaks have since been identified), a situation the Daily Tar Heel’s editorial team aptly described as a “clusterfuck.”

A residential advisor in a first-year dorm, Faye was deeply distressed by the news, even as she and many of her peers anticipated this turn of events. “From the moment we stepped foot on campus, I knew we weren’t going to be there for a long time,” said Suzy, a sophomore who, for privacy reasons, asked to be identified by only her first name. “Parents knew. I overheard someone joking that they’ll see their kids in two weeks.”

Faced with the prospect of more coronavirus cases on campus, some colleges — even those that intended to have just a small population of students on campus, in what’s called a “hybrid model” — are swiftly backtracking from the decision to host in-person courses in the eleventh hour. Following Chapel Hill’s pivot to online, Notre Dame University, whose president previously wrote in a New York Times op-ed that reopening was “worth the risk,” said classes would be remote for two weeks in an effort to staunch the surge in Covid-19 cases that administrators attributed to off-campus gatherings.

Schools that start in September, such as Michigan State University, Ithaca College, and Barnard College, have urged students to stay home, canceling their on-campus residential offerings just a few weeks before classes were expected to start. In many cases, the final call came too late: Most students have already paid a tuition installment, signed leases, and booked travel arrangements. A last-minute decision, while crucial from a public health perspective, can spiral into a logistical and financial nightmare for students, many of whom are scrambling to reorient their fall plans.

In a July 1 email to Silliman College students at Yale, a professor warned residents to “be emotionally prepared for widespread infections — and possibly deaths — in our community ... for the fact that your residential college life will look more like a hospital unit than a residential college.”

The Daily Tar Heel reported that in emails as early as May, UNC-Chapel Hill administrators acknowledged the possibility of outbreaks in dorms and on campus. Yet the bulk of these reopening discussions overwhelmingly placed the burden of safety and personal responsibility upon students.

“I want you to understand right now and very clearly that we have one shot to make this happen,” J. Michael Haynie, Syracuse University’s vice chancellor for strategic initiatives and innovation, wrote in a stern letter after more than 100 first-year students gathered in the school’s quad, reportedly with little adherence to social distancing or mask-wearing. “The world is watching, and they expect you to fail. Prove them wrong. Be better. Be adults. Think of someone other than yourself.”

The next day, Syracuse issued interim suspensions to 23 students for violating its student code of conduct. Ohio State University recently issued 228.

This emphasis on individual punishment can only do so much. It discounts how a handful of students, rule-breaking or otherwise, can easily spread the virus simply by interacting in the same living quarters with peers who might be social distancing. Reports of clusters have usually emerged among athletes and students who live in residential dorms or participate in Greek life. College administrators seem hell-bent on blaming students rather than acknowledging the numerous public and private warnings health experts have issued over the last few months.

Faye, overwhelmed with navigating her own housing logistics, had to help Chapel Hill students move out and answer their questions while also juggling online lectures. “Where am I going to live? I have so many questions and so little time to think about what I’m going to do and where I’m going to go,” Faye said. “Had this been done better, low-income students like myself wouldn’t have been put in this position of wondering whether our housing will be refunded, or if we’ll have enough money to get food if dining halls close down.”

The decision to plow ahead with reopening, as Faye noted, disproportionately affects low-income students, especially those who count on schools for work-study jobs, food, housing, and health care needs. The unavoidable closures in March had already displaced thousands of students, some of whom relied on mutual aid networks and the generosity of strangers and alumni to afford their move home or a place to stay. The discordant nature of how colleges are moving online have left the most economically marginalized students with minimal resources, forced to make frantic changes to their lives at the directive of their institutions.

Several students told me that had their colleges announced the shift to online learning earlier, they could’ve saved thousands of dollars in moving costs. Ava Mortier, a freshman at Barnard, said her family booked a $2,300 Airbnb where they could quarantine after flying in from a small town in Northern California. “The decision came out five days before my flight, which was much past Airbnb’s refund date,” Mortier wrote in a text message. “When the decision was announced, some first-year students I know were on planes to New York or had already begun quarantining in the city.”

Even when given the choice to return (for campuses pursuing a hybrid model), “Students lack the necessary information to make good decisions,” Cornell University junior Andrew Lorenzen argued in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “How can we weigh the options when we don’t even know what our classes will be? Why were we expected to commit ourselves to returning several weeks ago when we only just received our financial aid packages last week?”

Katherine, an incoming PhD student at Columbia University, told me over text that she felt pressured to sign a lease because the university said it couldn’t guarantee housing spots for students who didn’t pay rent their first semester. “Incoming students were forced into leases before they knew the format of the semester, or they would’ve lost housing,” said Katherine, who asked to be identified by only her first name for privacy reasons. “Now that many programs are online, students are now stuck with paying NYC rent.”

This isn’t an isolated incident: For years, graduate students have taken issue with how Columbia leverages its role as a university, employer, and landlord, the Columbia Daily Spectator reported earlier in August. Although Katherine plans to take classes remotely, she already committed to paying double the rent — for her uninhabited New York apartment and a space in Boston, where she has lived and worked. “It’s not a good or feasible option for students not in a stable financial situation,” she said.

A student studies outside the closed Wilson Library on the campus of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
UNC-Chapel Hill held in-person classes for a week before switching to online-only instruction on August 17. Within that week, four coronavirus clusters were reported on campus.
Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images

Ashley Allison, a junior at Michigan State University, had already paid her fall tuition when she learned all of her courses would be online. Although Allison is a commuter student who lives half an hour from MSU, she accepted an on-campus job at the university bookstore to help cover part of her rent, car payment, and insurance. As an independent student, which means her parents don’t financially support her, Allison had to work three part-time jobs last year to get through school.

“We kind of knew this was coming, but it’s annoying that the announcement came almost right after students paid full tuition for the fall, even those who had started to move into their dorms on campus,” Allison told me. “The university is asking students to go home, not forcing them, but it’s still a difficult situation to be in.”

With Michigan State’s last-minute switch to remote (the semester is slated to begin September 2), Allison is expecting to get laid off after the fall rush of students purchasing books. While the loss of this job won’t be financially debilitating for her, the timing of the university’s decision could have affected whether Allison took the job in the first place. “I might’ve found a job closer to home,” she said. “Ultimately, it seems very suspicious they had to wait until this point to tell students that we’re doing school online.”

Allison also said she was worried for her peers, especially those who are food insecure or live in remote places without a solid wifi connection. “People have it way worse than I do, and I wish MSU would be a little more empathetic to students with these specific needs, instead of just issuing statements that say they hear us and are with us,” Allison said. “I know low-income students who have it way worse than me are going to be left behind, especially if they don’t have a good home life or support system to fall back on.”

For Stephanie Philo, a senior at Ithaca College, leaving school meant she wouldn’t have consistent access to crucial mental health resources. Philo sublet a space over the summer and expected to move back to campus, but since Ithaca is no longer opening residential housing, she currently has no place to stay for the fall semester.

“I have supportive parents who are able to help me out financially, but that’s not the case for many others,” Philo told me. “The college hasn’t done anything so that people who were supposed to be living in Ithaca, those who have planned a move, can continue to do so.” If the announcement had come in June, or even in the middle of July, that could’ve made a difference when it came to navigating leases, Philo added, since students living off campus usually have to commit to six-month stays.

“I’m relieved that we aren’t starting school, but I wish there would’ve been more of a warning ahead of time,” she said. “They also haven’t made it clear when we’re getting a housing refund, and students are talking about how they want some sort of refund or decrease in tuition.”

Some schools, including the University of Mississippi and the University of Kansas, are proceeding with in-person instruction, despite the clear risks and the potential for hundreds of student infections under limited testing capacity. On August 24, its first day of in-person instruction, the University of Iowa — which plans to host more than 70 percent of undergrad courses online — reported that 107 students and four employees had tested positive for Covid-19 in the past week. The University of Alabama, meanwhile, has had more than 500 cases since in-person classes began August 19.

Colleges, especially public universities, have found themselves in an “impossible situation,” as “do[ing] the right thing would be financial suicide,” Bret Devereaux, an assistant teaching professor at North Carolina State University, wrote in the Atlantic. The business model of higher education relies on attracting students and families as customers, Devereaux argued, through fancy campus amenities and the allure of an exciting student life. The safest thing to do in the midst of a pandemic is to go entirely online and waive on-campus fees for students. But “without sufficient state funds, universities are reliant on federal grant money, which requires students to enroll,” Devereaux wrote. “If online courses drive away even a fraction of those students, the house of cards will collapse.”

As a result, some public (and even private) universities will stubbornly hold onto the prospect of reopening, likely until the number of active Covid-19 cases reaches a breaking point. These institutions seem “determined to keep students on campus until the checks clear — specifically, until after the add-drop period has passed, and students are locked into paying for classes,” the Kansas City Star’s editorial board wrote. Critics say that colleges are essentially “baiting and switching” families by promising a fulfilling in-person experience, despite the coronavirus’s unpredictability, and then reversing course at the last minute.

Students who rely on financial assistance from their universities are worried: Some fear that they won’t receive as much aid, while others feel they have no choice but to attend online or in-person classes given their financial dependence on the school. Hannah Correll, a senior at UNC-Chapel Hill, said she typically receives about $1,750 per semester to help with books, room, and board, but was instead granted $690 for this fall. That amount of money will cover less than two months of her $437-a-month lease, a housing arrangement she can’t sublet or break without paying a significant fee.

“Because of my lack of aid, I’m now deciding between having to break it and pay a large sum of money or live here for no reason, especially while not getting the aid I was promised and had planned for,” Correll told me. She is currently trying to make up the difference by taking on a part-time job as well as an internship, but Correll felt especially aggrieved that the university didn’t make the decision prior to tuition being due.

Although many students are grateful that their schools decided sooner rather than later to shut their doors, the damage to residents of college towns, campus employees, professors, and students alike could be long-lasting. Faye, the student at Chapel Hill, said she was frustrated that UNC’s Board of Governors didn’t heed the advice of local residents, professors, and students — particularly Black and Latino students — whose communities have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

“If we’re going to be honest here, the decision for them to reopen was one of greed,” Faye said. “Economic inequality is influencing people’s decision to stay or go. For those who have the financial stability, they’ve probably left or [had] their parents plan out that process. For working-class students, most of whom are Black and brown, we have to care about that ourselves.”

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