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As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, universities have experienced unprecedented disruptions.

As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds, universities have experienced unprecedented disruptions. Over the past few weeks, they’ve emptied classrooms and dorms, with most opting to finish the semester online. A few have cancelled courses altogether. Though extreme, these measures will protect students and staff from the rapid spread that would occur via stadium-like lecture halls, busy cafeterias, and crowded dorms. It was the only safe option, but the fallout will reverberate through America’s higher education system for years to come.

In previous generations, when college was reserved for the well-to-do, campus closures were a frustrating inconvenience. Today, there are literally millions of low-income college students in the US, and these unexpected changes have left them reeling. They’ve been forced to make costly trips home or rent apartments on short notice. These effects are compounded by surging unemployment rates, particularly in the service sector. While some institutions are offering full or partial refunds, it won’t be enough for many low-income students to balance the unforeseen expenses. For those that can’t rely on their family’s coffers, dropping out may become the only option.

Additionally, the transition to online instruction has put financial strain on the universities themselves. Roughly a third of schools were already operating at a deficit due to plateauing enrollment and declining government funds; now they’ll struggle with losses during and after the crisis. After sending out tuition refunds, universities will likely see a marked decline in enrollment. How schools will navigate these dire straits remains unclear; for the hardest hit, it will become an existential threat.

In response to the crisis, American Council on Education (ACE) released a memo asking for federal support. Among their requests were emergency financial aid for students and schools, zero-interest loans for universities, and support in implementing remote instruction.

Analysis

The pandemic has laid bare the already untenable state of American higher education. Soaring tuition and poor job prospects have already led younger generations to question the value of a degree, and these concerns are more salient than ever as online curriculums are rolled out with limited preparation.

In addition, the crisis in higher education has cast yet another spotlight on America’s chasmic wealth gap. Despite our society’s insistence to the contrary, a college degree is a hard-earned privilege, and now thousands — perhaps millions — of low-income students will be unable to afford it.

As ACE’s memo points out, these are the same students that rely on universities for food, housing, transportation, and medical care. Particularly in large public institutions, these basic needs are heavily subsidized. Many students would be unable to access reliable transportation without their school’s shuttle or bus passes, and the university healthcare system provides the only medical care they can afford.

Yet schools were never intended to provide these services on such a massive scale. Colleges have come to offer so much more than knowledge and professional credentials; increasingly, they are the scaffolding upon which poor students build their lives. For too long they have been covering for our government, providing for students’ basic needs when no other institution will. In the aftermath of this crisis, untold numbers of young adults will be facing an economic void that a $1,200 check won’t fill.

Our higher education system deserves all the federal aid it can get, but ultimately it faces deep flaws that our society as a whole must address.

Photo by Anshu A

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