Coronavirus is overwhelmingly affecting our education system. As officials closed down schools in the spring due to the public health emergency, students were forced to adapt to virtual classrooms. At universities, closures meant closed dorms and scrabbling to get back home — if that was an option. As the summer months are ending, universities have started rolling out their fall semester reopening plans for students, faculty and other employees. However, without a national plan, students will have to rely on fragmented information regarding their university’s safety procedures for classes, dorms and other important facilities. Additionally, communication barriers mean that questions still remain for international students whose universities have decided to conduct all classes online. Financial aid has become a source of stress for students that heavily rely on it such as athletes and low-income students.
The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act provided emergency funding to support higher education institutions and their students. However, this federal emergency funding has not covered all pandemic-related financial losses. Although community colleges host about 40% of the national student population, they only received 20% of funding from the CARES Act — not nearly enough to cover the lost revenue from housing, tuition and auxiliary services. Even four-year public institutions have not been able to cover their losses. The University of Wisconsin lost about $90 million worth in revenues and only received $45 million in aid.
For many universities and their students, COVID-19 exacerbated existing vulnerabilities. Universities have lost close to $9 billion in funding within the last decade. Although it is not expected that state and federal governments cover all losses from the pandemic for schools, they must recognize that years of funding cuts have already led to increasing tuition and reductions in staff and programming. The University of Alaska Fairbanks eliminated six degree offerings due to past funding cuts. Community colleges have been forced to cut services and depend on part-time staff — only 31% of staff in community colleges work full-time. Community colleges, historically Black colleges and other public higher education institutions that mainly serve minority and low-income students are historically limited in their budgets and consequently, their ability to act quickly and effectively to changing circumstances.
Additionally, the pandemic may increase disparities in the enrollment rates of minority students in selective four-year institutions. Prior to COVID-19, racial and ethnic disparities in college enrollment rates were decreasing, although gaps still persisted. In 2016, non-hispanic Whites made up 52% of national undergraduates while African Americans and Hispanics made up 15.2% and 19.8%, which is in line with their overall population percentages. However, this progress has not been matched by more selective four-year public universities. In fact African Americans and Latinos combined made up only 19% of the population in a selective four-year university. The severity of the racial and ethnic gap in enrollment among these universities varies between states. More selective universities typically receive more funds than their less competitive counterparts, and therefore spend more per student.
Since the pandemic, college enrollment for four-year universities could decline by 20%, according to a survey conducted by Simpson Scarborough. It did not take community college and foreign students into account, but it indicated the pandemic disproportionately affected minority students’ fall enrollment decisions. Around 64% of minority students expressed that their college plans were affected by COVID-19, and 41% said that they may not attend a university at all. These statements were true for a lower percentage of White students.
If minority students are still considering enrolling in a university, they may do so at a less competitive college or defer their enrollment for a year. Historically, two-year community colleges have seen an influx of students during recessionary periods. Since tuition costs for these institutions are thousands of dollars lower, low-income students may choose to attend community colleges as a cost saving measure. As of now, 36% of the 2020 high school graduating class plan on attending a community college — this is up from 26% pre-pandemic.
Community colleges, and other less-selective universities spend less per student and have been underfunded for years despite having a higher number of low-income students and students of color. For example, Black and Latino college students who attend California community colleges receive over $2 billion less a year in educational spending than do their White peers who attend four-year institutions. Between both types of institutions, individuals of color received $1,000 less per year than their White counterpart.
For these reasons, one should be concerned that low-income and minority students might fare poorly due to budget cuts that make effective institutional responses more difficult. During the height of the pandemic, historically Black universities and other minority-serving institutions struggled to acquire the technological infrastructure to switch to virtual education. Meanwhile, most disadvantaged students already struggled with getting access to a personal computer, reliable internet and a personal space to study.
Due to the summer uptick in COVID-19 cases, many universities have been revising their reopening plans to prioritize student and faculty safety. Leaders at these universities are worried about the costs of masks, personal protective equipment and extra cleaning. They have also expressed worry that their revenues cannot cover the costs of testing for asymptomatic students. Consequently, students returning this fall will be at higher risk for infection if colleges can’t afford to take the necessary measures to control the virus on campuses. While some schools have proposed a hybrid model that combines online and in-person components, others have decided to move completely online. However, little has been said about how to help disadvantaged students adjust to the new fall semester plans.
The recent push by President Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos to cut funding for schools that do not reopen in the fall fails to take into account the already limited resources colleges have to safely accommodate all students. Instead of more funding cuts, states and universities should work together to target minority students struggling to adjust and commit to increasing resources for them. If policymakers do not step in to help, college students will soon have to choose between their education, health and financial stability.
Federal and state governments along with universities need to transparently assess the consequences of their approach to reopening campuses. As the main sources of funding, federal and state governments should assist universities in their efforts to reopen and protect racial minorities from further pandemic-related harm.
Roxana Ruiz is a special initiative intern at NCRC.