The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued new guidelines last week to help higher education institutions plan for the fall amid the COVID-19 pandemic. It described closing residence halls as the “lowest risk” option for housing and suggested alternatives like allowing fewer students to live in dorms. It also said closing communal spaces like kitchens and dining halls, providing takeout meals with disposable utensils instead, will be safer.
As universities weigh these possible new realities, experts fear that limiting campus facilities – or keeping them closed – will exacerbate disparities for low-income students, even if it’s the right call.
“The decision to shut down campus as a response to a global public health crisis was the right decision,” said Dr. Anthony Jack, assistant professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “But that does not mean that food and housing insecurity, economic scarcity, is not a fundamental problem. … We typically think that students [who] make it to college have a golden ticket and now all of their worries are now done … and that’s fundamentally not true.”
Jack finds low-income students tend to rely on campus facilities for basic needs. His research showed that before the COVID-19 crisis, one in seven students typically stayed on campus for spring break, often because they couldn’t afford to go elsewhere, he said. And even then, closed dining halls during that one week of vacation left students scrambling for affordable meals, as he detailed in an article for The New York Times in 2018.
Meanwhile, for students working on campus or in their college towns, campus closures are “both a pink slip and an eviction notice,” at a time when their families may especially need the income, Jack said. So, if they are returning home, it’s to families that are more likely to be financially “precarious.”
Campus facilities are a vital safety net, he said, and their absence is strongly felt.
Dr. W. Carson Byrd, associate professor of sociology at the University of Louisville, emphasized just how wide that safety net is – and how wide it needs to be in a pandemic.
“It expands beyond being able to get a good meal … and a place to stay,” Byrd said. “It also means internet access. It means [the] ability to be in a safe place in more ways than one. Not all students come from safe and stable homes. But a safe and stable home also means not being around a COVID-19 hot spot.”
For students of color, their neighborhoods may be facing “a dramatic increase in cases” as the new coronavirus disproportionately impacts minority communities, he added. “Many college campuses are away from these hot spots.”
Returning campus facilities to normal isn’t possible without high risks, according to CDC guidelines, but there are ways to lessen the impact of their closing, Jack said. For one, he suggests colleges offer students an extensive guide to food banks in their areas. And if dorms are opening with limited capacity, perhaps they should consider prioritizing students who don’t have internet access or stable home environments for campus housing.
He doesn’t feel like he has the policy answers for fall – these are “real questions” institutions need to grapple with, he said – but he’s advocating for a “high-touch model,” with universities taking a hands-on approach to supports normally provided by campus facilities. He’d like to see a staff member approach every student about what resources the school can make available to them based on the level of need indicated in their financial aid package, like laptop stipends for students who normally rely on campus computer labs.
Low-income students are less likely to know what resources exist, let alone ask for them, he said, so “if you wait to help students who ask for help, you will be privileging those who typically come from more privileged backgrounds.”
Byrd pointed out that what institutions can offer low-income students is going to fluctuate based on how well-resourced they are. For example, for community colleges with closed dining halls, something as simple as the cost of paper and plastic utensils for takeout meals is going to cut into their budgets, which are already hit by the crisis.
One solution might be regional partnerships between under-resourced schools and those with sizable endowments, he said, or relationships with local companies, to make sure students can safely access the services they need at a price colleges can afford.
Ultimately, colleges and universities will have to “re-envision their role” as not just schools but community resources, he said, as they ask themselves how to use increasingly small budgets “to provide more resources and supports for students and not less. … Learning isn’t just about your coursework. It’s also about all the support systems colleges can provide.”
Sara Weissman can be reached at email@example.com.