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The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Low-Income Students, Part 2: Potential Institutional Interventions


The Impact of the COVID-19 Pandemic on Low-Income Students, Part 2: Potential Institutional Interventions

This article is part 2 of a two-part series on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on low-income students. Part 1 presented survey results, recent data from the emerging literature, and select results of student and instructor surveys from Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI). Part 2 focuses on potential actions that institutions can take to relieve some of the negative consequences of the pandemic on low-income students.

From the IUPUI student survey results (Hansen et al., 2020), we see several areas of disparity between under- and fully resourced students where our institutions can intervene to improve the outlook for vulnerable students. All require financial resources, but we believe that the dollars do not have to come exclusively from depleted institutional coffers.

The first area is access to technology for online learning. As an example, IUPUI used COVID-19 CARES Act funding to disburse direct cash grants to nearly 7,000 students who were Pell eligible. Additionally, funds were allocated to provide emergency funding to students facing immediate financial difficulties as well as to those who lacked the necessary resources for online or hybrid learning from home (e.g., computers, cameras, and high-speed internet). The impact of inadequate technology on college students’ learning is not the only educational concern posed by COVID-19. Many of our low-income students have younger siblings who are also using online avenues for their K–12 educational experiences.

Under-resourced K–12 students are already behind their fiscally endowed peers and will fall further behind (widening the gap) because of inadequate hardware and internet access. In the absence of the large technology corporations stepping up—and there are some beginnings that it is (see, for instance, T-Mobile’s plan)—campus leaders should approach these corporations, with K–12 leadership as partners, to request free or deeply discounted prices for hardware, software, and internet access for low-income households with children (K–16). The technology corporations would generate positive public relations for their generosity now and will get their fiscal return as more low-income households move up the ladder through the educational success of their children and can afford their own technology. This may be the most opportune time in our history for this type of infusion as we seriously consider the many aspects of the equity issue across our society.

A second area in which our institutions can intervene is by allowing under-resourced students to voluntarily remain on campus during shutdowns in much the same the way that our institutions allowed some international students, who had no place to go, to remain in campus housing during the campus shutdowns in spring 2020. As campus residents, these students have paid for room and board, thus leaving the campus responsible for the provision of clean, sanitized on-campus environments, the adequate separation of students, and the assurance of adherence to safety protocols. We make this suggestion because so many of our under-resourced students may lack the technology just discussed and because they belong to groups that have suffered job losses and COVID-19 infections at greater-than-average rates. Keeping them on campus would also free them from the universal issues of competing with others, including siblings, for access to technology and for securing an appropriate space for study. It is a mechanism whereby the academic experience and environment remain as close to normal (pre-COVID-19) as possible.

A final way that the pandemic has disproportionately harmed low-income students is related to the ways that our campuses have reopened and then, in many cases, reclosed (Nguyen, 2020 Sept.). As we have all seen, these reclosures have taken place across a majority of our campuses, where there were initial plans for some on-campus and hybrid courses for the fall semester. These plans sometimes changed in late summer or early in the fall as our campuses dealt with COVID-19 outbreaks of various sizes and campuses have decided to close and move to exclusively online instruction. Under-resourced students are harmed in a number of ways by these last-minute changes. Many of them depend on their institutions for not only room and board but also on-campus employment and healthcare. Without personal resources, where do they go for these essentials? If they travel long distances from home to campus, these changes may occur while they are in quarantine and result in the loss of the cost of a plane ticket if they must then return home. There are solutions to these problems and others that under-resourced students encounter, but each comes with an additional cost.

We recognize that our campus administrations are doing the best they can and that they must make rapid decisions as they analyze data from the pandemic. There are also a number of proactive steps that institutions can take to alleviate some of the cost and much of the stress placed on these vulnerable students. Now that they have experienced a semester start with COVID-19, administrators should establish a firm set of deadlines for decisions for the next semester that will allow time for students to make adjustments before they travel to campus. Administrators should also consider establishing contingency plans (CPs) for under-resourced students that address their individual needs. These plans should include the option to remain on campus during shutdowns. The plans can be shared with students ahead of time to assure complete understanding as well as to consider requests for adjustments. A CP would contain information as to the new residence hall and room assignment, location and times for meals, locations of support services (e.g. printers), continuing or new on-campus employment, and, of course, rules for appropriate behavior during a pandemic. Although there are current positive developments related to a Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine, campus administrators need to remain attentive to students’ needs and engage in active planning.

We are all operating in a perpetual now with little time to plan and when the information needed to guide us during this pandemic often becomes available after the proverbial horse has left the barn. In April and May the conventional wisdom was that community college enrollments would rise in the fall because of student survey data that indicated that students wanted to stay closer to home and to reduce their tuition costs. While it is still unknown how many students opted for this, we do have community college enrollment numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center (2020) that, as of October 22 (76 percent of institutions reporting), show a 9.5 percent drop in enrollment for fall (Figure 1 in the report). This number includes an 18.9 percent decrease in first-time students (Figure 6 in the report). Particularly hard-hit were the first-year numbers of Native American (−29.3 percent), Black (−28.4 percent), and Hispanic (−27.5 percent) students. This is critical and alarming because community colleges have higher percentages of low-income and marginalized students than other institutional types. Undergraduate enrollment across all institutional types was down 4.4 percent.

The recent enrollment trends indicate that we are losing our most vulnerable students in significant numbers to the effects of the pandemic (Long & Douglas-Gabriel, 2020). For those not with us this fall, we recommend that their home institutions identify and contact each one to learn their individual needs, construct a re-recruitment package, and hope that some will return in the spring. For those still with us, we recommend that institutions move immediately to address the issues of technology access and, in the event of another campus shutdown, make available, for resident students who desire it, on-campus or university-sponsored housing that is safe and compatible with academic life.

Because of the complexities of predicting outcomes relative to the pandemic, institutional leadership must remain vigilant in monitoring, in real time, student attitudes, behaviors, and progress while paying special attention to the most vulnerable student cohorts. Institutions should collect real-time data and continuously assess the changing needs of students as they engage in multiple course modalities (hybrid, face-to-face, online synchronous, and online asynchronous). For instance, our home institution is gathering information from instructors who are asked to indicate students’ levels of course engagement via a student engagement roster report. Additionally, we are collecting real-time information from students via semester check-in survey instruments designed to identify academic, social, and personal barriers students may be facing and to allow for a rapid response. For example, adjusting a student mentoring schedule to conform to the needs of a student who cannot make the assigned times, moving an off-campus student because of the danger posed by others in not following social distancing protocols, or addressing food insecurity would be examples of responses to barriers that students may encounter where immediate responses would be preferred. Doing so would relieve student stress and may also lead to better academic outcomes.


Hansen, M. J., Janik, R., Rauch, J. T., Marsiglio, C., & Keith, C. J. (2020, May). 2020 IUPUI student COVID-19 transition needs survey. Institutional Research and Decision Support, Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN. Unpublished report.

Long, H., & Douglas-Gabriel, D. (2020, September 16). The latest crisis: Low-income students are dropping out of college this fall in alarming numbers. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/business/2020/09/16/college-enrollment-down

National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. (2020, November 12). Fall 2020 enrollment (as of Oct 22). https://nscresearchcenter.org/stay-informed

Nguyen, T. (2020, August 26). College reopenings—and closures—are harming low-income students. Vox. https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2020/8/26/21401388/colleges-closing-reopening-fall-semester-vulnerable-students

N. Douglas Lees, PhD, is professor and chair emeritus of biology and former associate dean for planning and finance in the School of Science at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

Michele J. Hansen, PhD, is assistant vice chancellor for institutional research and decision support at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis.

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