How will colleges’ coronavirus response affect underserved students?

As COVID-19 spreads throughout the world, American schools are taking steps to ensure educational continuity while minimizing virus transmission. To date, hundreds of colleges and universities across the United States have announced plans to switch to online classes or temporarily close, according to a spreadsheet maintained by Bryan Alexander, who teaches in Georgetown University’s Learning, Design, and Technology master’s program. 

But many students who depend on two- and four-year colleges for vital resources are vulnerable to further disruption. Advocates for underserved students—those who are low-income, housing-insecure, food-insecure, underinsured, and technologically underresourced—are calling on universities to identify potential gaps and allocate funding, support, and care accordingly.

Related: Georgetown University announces transition to a virtual learning environment >

Broken income streams and financial hardship

As organizations switch to telework, families retreat from public life, and institutions close, students working in the service industry or at other on- and off-campus jobs to pay their way through school may lose shifts and tips that are vital for paying rent, buying essentials, and purchasing plane tickets home to see their families. A financial shortfall of as little as $500 can cause a low-income student to drop out of school, Sara Goldrick-Rab, founding director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, told The Washington Post

Students are also stressed by the costs and logistics of moving their belongings. Wilder Brice, the student government president at Bucknell University, told Inside Higher Ed that asking his peers to handle these concerns on short notice is “an extreme burden on students depending on where they’re from.”

In a new white paper on supporting students during COVID-19, Goldrick-Rab calls on colleges to make emergency aid available to students through minimally invasive and simple online systems such as Edquity, for which Goldrick-Rab is chief strategy officer for emergency aid. Harvard University is offering to assist with the costs of storing and shipping items belonging to students who receive financial aid, The New York Times reports. The school also is deploying staff to dining halls to help students book travel and cover those costs using a sliding scale based on level of financial aid. At Berea College, a work college where every student has a campus job, the school is closing, but students who leave campus will be paid wages through the semester’s end.

Housing insecurity

Around one-third of students enrolled at four-year colleges and half of students at two-year colleges experience housing and/or food insecurity, writes Goldrick-Rab. When campuses close and students are asked to swiftly evacuate their residence halls, some students have no other home to return to. If they are staying somewhere temporarily, their host may ask them to leave, or they may choose to leave, due to the presence of a sick person in the house.

Housing is also a concern for stranded international students, or grounded exchange students, who have been forced to cancel plans amid evolving travel restrictions. Extended stays can be an unexpected strain on university housing systems.

Still, some colleges, including Georgetown, are allowing students who are unable to return to their permanent addresses to stay on campus. Anthony Abraham Jack—Harvard professor and author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students—told Inside Higher Ed that “a significant number of students—disproportionately those from lower-income backgrounds—remain on campus because they can’t afford to leave, they don’t have anywhere to go, or they know that home and harm are synonymous,” due to “fraught relationships with their families for reasons from political ideology to gender roles to sexual identity.” He advocated  in a tweet for administrators to “Please help those without exit strategies.”

Related: What awaits low-income students on elite college campuses? >

New contributors to food insecurity

As campuses close, many schools are cutting back on the number of hours and options for on-campus dining. This can leave students, especially those with alternative schedules and limited spending money, hungry. “For a lot of students, college is the only place where they have access to food on a consistent basis,” Jack told Inside Higher Ed. He said he worries that university response plans that overlook low-income students’ needs “can actually exacerbate pre-existing inequalities,” and he hopes that universities will invite such student perspectives into their decision-making.

Goldrick-Rab recommends that institutions prepare meals for pickup or delivery, coordinate with community food banks, and continuously stock campus food pantries. She also asks universities to consider how loss of wages can leave students newly eligible for SNAP benefits, and to teach students how to apply for and use those funds.

Strains on physical and mental health

Health problems also can be a major disruptor, as closures or reductions in campus health care services can put uninsured students at risk. Goldrick-Rab urges universities to help students apply for Medicaid and consider the needs of ineligible or undocumented students. She writes that college health centers should accept Medicaid and offer referrals to community health care providers with sliding-scale fees.

In addition, stress can make bureaucracy more difficult for students to navigate, especially for international students who are financially strained, separated from family, and/or feeling the effects of discrimination. Professors, Goldrick-Rab says, can help students in these scenarios by proactively offering guidance and clearly outlining ways to access coaching, mental health counseling, and university support. At Georgetown University, the Office of Campus Ministry has made counseling sessions available, in addition to those offered by campus Counseling and Psychiatric Services.

Disparities in technological access

As schools transition to online learning models, technological access also becomes a concern, especially for students without laptops, internet at home, or unlimited mobile data plans.

Technology shortages are especially prevalent at community colleges with many low-income students. Shoreline Community College in Washington state is repurposing laptops from its computer labs to loan to students, reports Inside Higher Ed. Colleges also can help matters by providing wifi hotspots for remote learners, Goldrick-Rab says. 

But even with adequate technology, some colleges have not yet determined how to move support systems and tutoring online for students with disabilities or who need extra help. Research shows that, in general, online courses have a retention gap of 10 to 40 percent compared to in-person courses. Experts say that having all students log on together for class, personal outreach from professors, and online discussion boards may help learning continuity and student retention.

Abundant uncertainties

For some students, distance learning is not a blanket solution. The New York Times reports that international students enrolled on F visas at schools in the United States can legally take only one online class per semester and remain in the country, and most students on M visas for vocational training cannot take any classes online.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) issued guidance this week that it will be “flexible with temporary adaptations” for international students as colleges make plans for instructional continuity, in hopes that students can “continue to make normal progress in a full course of study as required by federal regulations.”

Some classes, meanwhile, do not lend themselves to distance learning, leaving students uncertain of how they can continue to make progress. Music, theater, and dance students are unsure of the fate of their final performances, as are students involved in research with specialized lab equipment. Health care programs face a similar dilemma.

Support for students at Georgetown

Georgetown on March 11 announced the university’s transition to a virtual learning environment, and on March 13 made the decision to extend virtual learning through the end of the semester. The university will implement a phased process for undergraduate students to move out of residence halls by March 29, to adhere to the best practices in reducing the density of people on campus and to provide as much flexibility as possible to students and families. Room and board fees will be prorated for the rest of the semester. Georgetown is developing alternatives for students who have communicated a significant need to stay on campus.

Campus will remain open, and the university will ensure students who need to remain on campus continue to be supported with access to dining and critical services, including the Georgetown University Police Department (GUPD), the Student Health Center, Counseling and Psychiatric Services (CAPS), Student Affairs, Georgetown University Transportation Shuttles (GUTS), and Facilities Management.

The university has asked students who have a compelling reason to stay on campus to apply to remain on campus, and have made available a dedicated call center for any questions.

For information on Georgetown University’s instructional continuity plan and frequently asked questions related to COVID-19, visit

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