Protecting Low-Income & Vulnerable Students Amid Economic Fallout

The COVID-19 pandemic has upended life on college and university campuses - forcing students to continue to learn remote or in a hybrid setting, social-distance while living in dorms, and undergo frequent testing. Many students are struggling with the unprecedented changes amid the pandemic, but for low-income or vulnerable students, the fallout from the spread of the disease and economic crisis has been felt even more acutely. Administrators can take proactive steps to conduct outreach to these students, providing resources to address housing or food scarcity, healthcare needs, or transportation concerns, as well as supporting academic continuity.

How COVID-19 Worsened Existing Economic Inequity

When COVID-19 required campuses across the United States to move all instruction online, halt all on-campus activities or operations, and facilitate the closure and evacuation of residence halls, it highlighted the unique challenges vulnerable students face. The disruption was painful for all students, but for students who are low-income or otherwise disadvantaged, this period presented unparalleled difficulties. Many students who come from low-income backgrounds struggled to pay the additional cost of an airline ticket or gas, did not have a stable home to return to, or who are unable to access an Internet connection and Zoom at home, experienced immediate and ongoing difficulties in continuing their education amid the coronavirus pandemic, as per Inside Higher-Ed. 

One student, who was instructed to leave Harvard University in March, noted that her mother was required to take time off from work to fetch her from school, further exacerbating financial challenges, as per the New York Times. “We’re living off her tips,” the student told the publication “It was a difficult decision, but honestly we weren’t really left with a choice.”

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Another student, who reported being on full financial aid, noted that she’d only gotten airfare together for Spring break by working two jobs, then had to cancel the ticket and go to live with a school friend. While protecting the spread of the virus took precedent, the student expressed anguish about overstaying her welcome and that colleges and universities had failed to produce a plan for students who do not come from means. 

Now, as the COVID-19 crisis continues, the economic fallout will also wear on and continue to impact vulnerable students pursuing higher-education degrees. In November, a new wave of unemployment claims suggested that the second wave of the virus will slow economic recovery, suggesting that financial difficulties will persist for American families, as per the New York Times. This economic fallout will have serious consequences for underserved students, impacting finances, housing, mental health, and ultimately, their ability to complete college. 

Whose Education Is Disrupted Due to Ongoing Economic Distress?

economic distressA national poll of college students found that many students are anxious about their ability to continue their education, with students from marginalized backgrounds, such as students of color, reporting concerns at significantly higher rates. The Education Trust and Global Strategy Group conducted a higher-education retention poll that found 77% of students were unsure if they were on track to graduate from their program, and those concerns were higher among Black students (88%) and Latinx students (81%). The end of the previous semester saw a significant drop in enrollments and FAFSA renewals, with renewals dropping most from families who make less than $25,000 per year down by more than 8%, as per Inside Higher Ed. 

Even community colleges, which typically experience increased enrollment during an economic downturn, experienced a drop of 22.7% in freshman enrollment, as per the New York Times. The dip in enrollment at these institutions, where most Black, Latino, and lower-income students enter the higher education system, could have longstanding implications for equity and access in the future of higher education. Students who interrupt their education intending to complete it later are statistically less likely to do so. The dip also comes as overall enrollments are down, with freshman enrollment dropping 16% across all U.S. colleges and universities, as per the New York Times. 

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How To Help Vulnerable Or Low-Income Students 

For low-income students who don’t have access to the Internet, many companies are working to bridge the digital inequity gap and give students, parents, and teachers access to virtual learning. The FCC has partnered with 800 organizations for the “Keep America Connected” initiative; it’s possible that students may be able to seek support through the agency and gain access through virtual Wi-Fi hotspots. Additionally, many libraries have set up roaming WiFi hotspots to support those in rural communities. 

On campus, administrators can encourage faculty to be patient and flexible with students at a disadvantage due to the digital divide, finding alternative lesson plans options if remote access is not always possible. In general, professors should be encouraged to be more lenient with students during this difficult time. Many colleges or universities have temporarily moved to a pass/fail format to help students succeed, cut nonessential course-content, and move deadlines as needed. 

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While minimizing the number of students on campus is necessary, administrators should be conscious that not every student has a home to rely on or return to. Many institutions are setting up provisional housing for students-in need, allowing a limited number of students to remain on-campus in social distancing compliant dormitories. Higher-Ed officials should also take proactive steps to combat food scarcity. Providing continued access to a campus meal plan or on-campus food banks can also help minimize stress for students who rely on the school for food. Additionally, it may be valuable to distribute resources about accessing the social safety net in the area, including EBT or housing assistance is available through government programs. 

The Importance of Distributing Valuable Resources 

If students are unsure where to access resources, it can negatively impact retention. Administrators should take a proactive approach to campus communications, distributing relevant resources on housing, financial aid, or on-campus healthcare early and often. A coronavirus recovery solution can improve a higher education institution's response posture, facilitating the distribution of a broad range of communications with customizable content, such as emergency procedures and protocol on campus or directions for accessing emergency aid to students. The system can also continue to communicate with off-campus or traveling students, sending targeted notifications on relevant issues, such as access to digital equity resources or communications from the financial aid offices. 

The use of a campus safety app can also boost student engagement, allowing individuals to access a directory of critical numbers, such as administration offices, the campus health or counseling center, or a coronavirus hotline. The app can also contain a virtual edition of the student handbook with further information about emergency aid or resource allocation. The inbound chat feature lets students communicate directly with campus officials allowing them to ask any relevant questions regarding housing, meal plans, or campus safety. Administrators can share relevant links and resources via the two-way chat feature as well, further boosting student engagement.

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Mary Kate McGrath
Mary Kate McGrath

Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.

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