In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak and the resulting financial fallout, the nation’s lowest income students may forfeit their dreams of attending college. Two experts offer tips on how colleges can help those students stay on track. 
Photo: AJC File 
Photo: AJC File 

Five ways to get low-income students back to college during COVID-19

The economic free fall triggered by the coronavirus pandemic could destroy the college dreams of America’s low-income students, who have fewer resources to insulate them.

In a guest column, two higher education experts discuss lower-income students and their potential return to higher education. They urge campuses to consider policies and practices to make things easier for those students.

Matthew J. Mayhew is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher professor of educational administration at Ohio State University. Gregory C. Wolniak is associate professor of higher education at the University of Georgia. 

By Matthew J. Mayhew and Gregory C. Wolniak

As more Aunt Beckies use their wealth, resources, and connections to manage and maneuver within the COVID-realized college system, students from less wealthy families may be left behind. 

As co-authors of the book, “How College Affects Students: 21st Century Evidence that Higher Education Works,” we found the outlook for lower-income families does not look good. The No. 1 barrier to college, especially among lower income families, is cost.

Matthew J. Mayhew is the William Ray and Marie Adamson Flesher professor of educational administration at Ohio State University.

Although many are wondering ifhow, and when colleges recover from COVID-19, we hypothesize that America will experience a “golden boomerang” effect for students from wealthier families. These students forced home from COVID-19 will more likely boomerang back to college once certain restrictions are lifted.

Gregory C. Wolniak is associate professor of higher education at the University of Georgia.

Students from less-privileged families will be more likely to remain enrolled in college but stay home to complete coursework online or attend a local community college. The lowest income students may altogether drop their plans to attend college. 

In all facets of higher education, when scarcity is introduced, those with financial means leverage their resources to secure the “better” alternative. While wealthier families may be more insulated from the disruptions of COVID-19, we urge institutions to carefully consider policies and practices to make things easier for students with fewer resources.

Here, we offer some thoughts for helping bring students from lower-income families back to the college they signed up for.

Demystify tuition

There is no uniform approach to managing tuition, as some institutions have imposed freezes, while others consider discounts

Public institutions have even more to consider, with many states slashing higher education budgets. For example, state lawmakers in Colorado just cut 58% of public college budgets. When dramatic cuts like these occur, institutions may be pressured to pass costs along to families by increasing tuition.

Some students have even asked for tuition refunds, given that courses had to be offered online as a result of COVID-19. This may add to the confusion, as most students received direct, face-to-face instruction for at least part of the semester and did not lose any credit hours nor compromise time to degree.

Institutions often struggle to effectively communicate tuition information to students, creating the greatest challenges to low-income students. Institutions should make a call on tuition as soon as they can and clearly communicate these adjusted policies to enrolled students and their families.

Clarify aid, loans, and scholarships

Although the CARES Act has allocated financial resources to institutions for supporting students and provided guidelines to institutions regarding distributing resources, there are no guarantees these funds will be distributed to students who need them the most.  

In a recent survey of college and university business officers, only 16% of four-year private non-profit institutions plan to increase financial aid to students as a result of COVID-19.

Institutions should establish clear policies concerning how CARES funds, loans, scholarships, and other forms of financial aid will be distributed. Those policies should be communicated to all members of the campus community.

Be transparent about fees 

New COVID-related costs may be introduced related to many aspects of the college-going experience. Consider the cost implications of policies involving number-of-students-per-roomlecture hall seat-spacing, and mental health service expansion

With more needs for space and services comes more need for paying for extra space and services. Institutions should commit to fee transparency, given the added burdens lower-income families face in planning for returning to college.

Re-think policies related to family care

Lower-income students may need to help support the family financially more than students from wealthier families. Lower-income students may need additional support as they continue their studies and work more hours to provide for the family.

It is important to re-visit campus practices relating to child care provision, commuting hardship, visa management, and the like. Also, use this time to reconsider the academic roadblocks low-income students who work likely experience. For example, required general education and major courses may need to be offered asynchronously or at different times of the day to meet the scheduling demands of these students.

Secure basic needs for students

Securing basic needs for college students was a problem even before the pandemic. As campuses around the country close their residence halls and cafeterias due to COVID-19, low-income students are at higher risk of food and housing insecurity, particularly those who are homeless, from economically strained households, or unable to travel home.

In addition to establishing emergency funds and food pantries, colleges may need to find ways to follow the lead of K-12 school districts that have been distributing food for students and families affected by school closures. Doing so may not only meet the most basic needs of students, but may help them focus on their studies during these challenging times.

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About the Author

Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey
Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.
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