College responses to COVID-19 are failing underprivileged students, highlighting the access gap

Photo by Dan Dimmock on Unsplash

When the coronavirus pandemic broke out in the United States, most of us were surprised with how quickly the virus spread. People scrambled to prepare families, businesses and lives in general for the coming – and in many cases, already very present – chaos. Colleges and universities were similarly faced with an immediate, crucial decision regarding how to treat classes and residential students.

Colleges and universities face the unique challenges of having large, residential populations of national and international student bodies. They were forced to act early and appropriately in order to protect not only their own communities, but also the communities where their students live. These decisions were unprecedented and immediate and should be reviewed with the degree of compassion and understanding this situation begets.

However, the responses of colleges and universities – especially those who acted first – reveals their failure to prioritize – or even consider – the needs of low-income and underprivileged students. Schools kicked students off campus with only days to remove their belongings. Many students were told that they must return to their homes within a week. Classes, in many cases immediately, went online, and students were told to finish their coursework from home. 

For the upper-middle-class student who can drive home, or buy a plane or train ticket on a whim, and whose house has adequate WiFi, there is no significant problem. The situation is frustrating, may make completing coursework more difficult and can have very real, negative impacts on mental health. The pandemic is not to be taken lightly, and students may be severely impacted – but the upper-middle-class student is relatively alright. 

Yet lower income and underprivileged students will not be as well-off. Students who cannot afford to pay lucrative, last-minute prices on transportation were stuck. Being kicked out of their dorms, unable to get home and unable to store their belongings for a reasonable price, some students were forced to start GoFundMe campaigns in order to cover the unexpected fees. Students with on-campus jobs suddenly lost means of income – without a guarantee of means to financially subsist. 

Once home, many students were forced to divert their attention from their studies to their families. College students were suddenly not finishing courses in silent libraries, with face-to-face interaction with professors, in private dorm rooms with desks, on a campus with reliable WiFi. They were finishing courses in potentially crowded households, with ailing family members to whom they must tend, without quiet workspaces or adequate means of streaming and accessing courses. 

Additionally, students who live off campus were often unable to get out of leases. Forced to decide between staying, isolated away from home and paying for accommodation not to be used, many students were out either money or peace of mind. 

While these problems, and many more I haven’t discussed,  are not necessarily foreseeable, the decisions by colleges highlight that the needs of their least privileged students are not their priority. Many colleges were scrambling to react to the problems of low-income students and students whose home circumstances make remote education challenging or nearly impossible. Schools who are providing refunds did not clarify these refunds would be available when initial decisions were made – leaving students with uncertainties about their financial futures. 

If colleges made initial decisions explicitly considering the needs and situations of their least privileged students, they would not have run into the primary initial issues. To its credit, William Jewell College’s response to the situation has been admirable. It provided students with warning about considerations of taking classes online, preparing students and teachers with remote WiFi hotspots when necessary, providing the opportunity to apply for on-campus housing when they were unable to return home and providing students with a three-week timescale with which to retrieve belongings from campus.

Jewell, however, is an outlier and had the benefit of time. Jewell, already a small student community, does not have a large national or international student body and is located in an area relatively unaffected by coronavirus, especially toward the beginning of the U.S. outbreak. They had the benefit of hindsight and the ability to observe the reactions of other schools.

Most early-acting schools made decisions based on speed, with few early contingencies for students who may not be able to handle the financial or academic implications of such decisions. The pandemic highlighted schools’ primary focus and consideration of privileged, wealthy students. For many colleges, lower-income and underprivileged students are an afterthought – those to be handled after primary decisions have been made, not the primary benefactors of university decisions.

Despite trying to portray inclusive atmospheres at which all can succeed, colleges and universities fail middle and lower-class students – especially in times of crisis. Rather than leaving students to fend for themselves while a more adequate response plan could be formulated, colleges should have not only made initial decisions for the benefit of all students but also planned potential contingency plans before a crisis broke out. 

The failure to adequately consider all students also exacerbates racial disparities in higher education. The institutional racism both in colleges and universities and in the United States as a whole puts people of color at a higher risk for severe illness and a higher likelihood to have lower income. By assuming an upper-middle-class, wealthy, abled, white student as the norm, colleges and universities make decisions that fail students not fitting that profile.

Colleges already should have had backup, online contingency plans – like what would be necessary for disabled students who may not be able to regularly attend in-person classes. The technological needs the pandemic is revealing are reasonable for universities to have already put in place. 

Despite the stressful, unprecedented times, it is reasonable to expect colleges to make decisions with the understanding that some students may not be able to immediately vacate campus. Students may not be able to complete courses unaided from their homes. Their home circumstances may not allow for them to return at all. Underprivileged students should not be handled as an afterthought – they should be considered as a primary contingent when considering student well-being. 

Until colleges stop prioritizing wealthy, privileged students – especially subconsciously in times of crisis – higher education will not be the accessible and inclusive place it so desperately wants to be. Until colleges acknowledge the validity of experiences of all students, there will continue to be an access gap between students who are considered the norm and those who should be thankful even to be given the chance to attend.

Catherine Dema

Catherine Dema is the page editor for Features & Investigations on The Hilltop Monitor. She is a senior majoring in Oxbridge: History of Ideas and physics.

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