Coronavirus closed colleges and sent students home. Some of them have nowhere to go.

The line between success and failure is razor thin for low-income student. Campuses that don't do more to help them now might find they can't ever return.
Image: BESTPIX - College Students Told To Leave Campuses To Counter Spread Of Coronavirus
Students move out of dorm rooms at Harvard University on March 12 in Cambridge, Mass.Maddie Meyer / Getty Images file
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By Michael Ellison, founder and CEO of CodePath.org

For low-income college students, a semester’s expenses almost always come down to the wire. You add up all the bare necessities you’ll need to live on, ration income from work-study and part-time jobs, and hope that it’s enough to get you past finals. Then you spend summer break working, trying to save up enough to do it all again.

Living on $20 a week, even basic moving costs are difficult to handle. Buying a ticket to try to stay with extended family and moving or storing my stuff required planning.

Over the past two weeks, hundreds of U. S. colleges closed down or went virtual for the rest of the semester in response to the coronavirus outbreak. These institutions, faced with a nearly impossible set of choices, have followed the best available guidance on how to limit this pandemic, and their decisions will likely slow the spread of illness in their communities. But as they unexpectedly send students home two months early, they have to remember that for some students, leaving may be even more dangerous than staying.

When I was in college, an unanticipated early end to the semester would have been disastrous. My mother never made a lot of money, and with debt piling up, she moved into my uncle’s attic after I went to college because she couldn't afford rent. Without a home to visit in between semesters, my freshman year I took summer courses on top of a full-time internship to qualify for student housing and subsidized the cost with financial aid; I wouldn’t have had a place to go on short notice.

When you’re living on $20 a week, even basic moving costs are difficult to handle. Buying a ticket to try to stay with extended family and moving or storing my stuff required planning. I depended on my financial aid for housing and food, and on my part-time job and work study for income.

And I wasn’t even the worst off. An estimated 45 percent of college students have recently experienced food insecurity. Since I graduated 10 years ago, I’ve met students with no family members able to offer even temporary shelter. I’ve met international students who, in order to go home, would have to forfeit their visas and risk getting stuck in their home countries. I’ve met students with family members depending on them for basic support -- and who get their income from work-study positions and summer internships near their campuses, all of which are largely at risk of shutting down.

Low-income students know that the anxiety that stems from unexpected changes can be debilitating — it can make it impossible to focus on classwork or even imagine staying in school. This month, since many colleges decided to shut down to keep their communities safe, too many are failing to do right by these students.

Many campuses asked students to move out on just a few days’ notice, giving students without stable homes to go back to almost no time to make alternative arrangements. These schools have typically told students that they can apply for waivers to stay on campus, but the criteria necessary to them are often unclear. Meanwhile, assistance for travel expenses is sparse.

Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have reported being denied permission to stay on campus, despite circumstances including having all family members quarantined near an outbreak center in China or fearing that a return home would expose a family member with a pre-existing medical condition. Students at less wealthy institutions have often received almost no support. Even Harvard, the richest university in the U.S. by nearly $10 billion, took steps to subsidize the costs of early departure, but moved so quickly to shut down campus that it left many students panicking.

As long as residence halls are standing, colleges should not let their students go without housing. Indeed, instead of closing down, some campuses have encouraged students to leave if possible but kept residence halls open for those who need them. And even when dining halls must close down, some have provided grab-and-go meals or ingredients students can cook in their dorm kitchens.

Campuses that have decided to close down their housing completely should step up and subsidize temporary housing and food for displaced students. If students were forced to buy last-minute tickets home, find a place to store their stuff until next fall or set up new internet connections so they can participate in virtual classes, colleges should help with those costs, too. If students depend on work-study funds, colleges should explore ways to keep them employed, whether through virtual work or other means.

It might be a pain for these institutions; it might even cause real financial harm. But when colleges take students’ welfare into their hands, they assume that risk, and individual students will always be less equipped to weather a financial crisis than the institution standing behind them. Taxpayers support even private universities through nonprofit tax breaks, research funding and financial aid, underscoring the public responsibility of these schools. Universities have to be able to keep their promises, especially elite institutions that sock away millions of dollars in their endowments and rainy day funds.

It’s important for these schools to keep in mind that this isn’t going to keep happening. When a once-in-a-century crisis strikes, colleges have to step up. And if it means cutting down on athletics, new construction or other nonessential investments next year, then that’s what they have to do.

For all the time that the higher education community spends talking about under-resourced students, the thing many still don’t realize is how difficult it is for low-income students to feel like they’re not alone. On elite campuses in particular, dominated by middle class and wealthy students, the sense of isolation that comes from feeling like the only one worrying about finding a place to stay or meals to eat can be exhausting.

When colleges take students’ welfare into their hands, they assume that risk, and individual students will always be less equipped to weather a financial crisis than the institution.

When colleges shut down on just a few days’ notice, without offering more than a possible travel voucher for students receiving financial aid, they’re just reinforcing the perception that higher education was not built to serve the needs of low-income students. They’re doing what higher education too often does: assuming an archetypal student with parents to cover sudden expenses and provide a home to return to. The more we pretend all students fit this mold, the more we’ll push away students who fall outside it.

Part of low-income life is knowing that the difference between success and failure is razor thin. So for thousands of students affected by campus closures, the semester’s early end isn’t just a lost chance to say goodbye to friends or to see an extracurricular activity to its end or even to progress academically — for some, it may be a setback too great to recover from.