The impact of COVID-19 on colleges and universities across the country is unprecedented. Over the last few weeks, campuses have closed for the year or migrated to distance learning, faculty members are scrambling to create new systems for online learning, and graduations have been delayed or cancelled.
Higher education, as many of us know it, is in the midst of an immediate and massive paradigm shift, and financially vulnerable students are at the greatest risk of having their academic goals derailed. These students are often juggling employment and family obligations, making changes to work-study and living arrangements all the more difficult to manage. According to U.S. Financial Health Pulse data, 54% of all students surveyed said that financial stress impacted their school work. For those without a reliable safety net, the impact could mean pausing their education or dropping out completely. By better understanding the financial challenges of vulnerable students, campuses have an opportunity to focus COVID-19 support on those most in need while setting up those students for greater financial health and college success in the future.
Nowhere to Go, No Way to Pay
Even before the pandemic, the lives of financially struggling students were overwhelmingly complex. Our research shows that these students are often juggling multiple jobs, family financial obligations, and caretaking. From that precarious position, the ground is now shifting underfoot.
For example, while colleges took swift action to close their campuses, being told to leave amounts to an eviction for some students. They may have nowhere else to go. For others who had campus jobs, it means the loss of a critical income stream. Once again, those who are most in need have the fewest resources for support. They are the most vulnerable and are at the greatest risk of being homeless, going hungry, or not being able to matriculate back into classes once they resume.
Higher-Ed Digital Divide
Higher education’s response to COVID-19 has also exposed the incredible digital divide between financially vulnerable students and their more financially secure counterparts. When classes, assignments, discussions, and feedback are all conducted digitally, students with low-quality or no at-home internet suffer and risk falling behind. While millions of Americans do not have sufficient digital access to support work, distance learning, or social connectedness fully during a pandemic, the federal government, nonprofits, and the private sector are working to reduce this divide by donating devices and expanding internet hotspots in underserved communities.
Serving Those Most in Need
For financially vulnerable students, a disruption this large can have devastating long-term impacts, including failure to re-enroll once the pandemic ends. While campuses and institutions are managing enormous complexities, there are ways to focus efforts on those students most in need. For example, the Hope Center has published ways to serve all students, including actively connecting students to federal and state benefits and resources, keeping food banks stocked and open, and being flexible with online education.
Additionally, a growing number of campuses are creating impact and emergency funds for students. For example, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill created an impact fund to help students affected by COVID-19, and the Northern Virginia Community College Educational Foundation launched a new emergency fund for students. In addition, Harvard University is supporting its low-income students by providing the cost of plane tickets back home.
The Future of Higher Ed
Higher education is in a period of tremendous flux, and campuses have an opportunity to innovate in ways that are ultimately more inclusive and supportive for all students. The Financial Health Network, in collaboration with colleges and universities around the country, has developed a measurement framework to help campuses and other key stakeholders support students who are struggling financially. By making data-driven decisions and understanding the specific needs of their most vulnerable students, colleges can strengthen the student safety net in ways that will have a positive impact beyond the current crisis.