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Author: Michele J. Hansen and N. Douglas Lees

This article is part 1 of a two-part series on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on low-income students. Part 1 includes national 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 pandemic’s negative consequences on low-income students.

Over the past several months an increasing number of articles have addressed the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on aspects of higher education. While its impact on students was recognized quickly, many of the early articles focused on the fiscal losses incurred by our institutions, the potential impact on enrollments for 2020–21, and the rapid move to all-online instruction in spring 2020. Thanks to some of our institutional leaders and other external groups who thought it wise to survey students and faculty during that tumultuous spring semester, we have recently been able to report on how students perceived the switch to online instruction and what areas of online instruction require improvement. We focus here on the unprecedented impact that the pandemic has had on low-income, or under-resourced, students and, in part 2, on some steps that our institutions can take to ameliorate those effects. The information that we use was compiled from several published articles, the aforementioned student surveys, and website sources plus a student survey (Hansen et al., 2020a) that was conducted at our home institution late in the spring 2020 semester.

The surveys revealed some dire effects the pandemic has had on students. The most consistently mentioned negative element was increased stress or anxiety. Among the major stressors were the following: difficulty learning in online formats, the loss of connection with instructors and their peers, personal and family finances, and difficulties focusing on and lack of motivation for online learning. Because many of the stressors relate to the online learning environment, a decided majority of student survey respondents strongly preferred in-person learning.

Recently, press reports and articles have appeared on the pandemic’s effects on international students (Henriquez, 2020) and LGBTQ+ students, and we anticipate other student subgroups will be examined so that institutions can better identify their common and individual needs. In this article we explore the impact of COVID-19 on the most vulnerable students: those who are low-income, a high percentage of whom are from historically marginalized populations. Evidence suggests that the barriers many vulnerable students typically encounter—such as job loss, food insecurity, mental health issues, distractions at home, and increased family responsibilities—may have intensified during the pandemic. Additionally, new evidence indicates that the transition to online learning during the pandemic could exacerbate existing achievement gaps. Dorn et al. (2020) report that school shutdowns may cause disproportionate learning losses and amplify achievement disparities across income levels as well as between White students and Black and Latinx students. Furthermore, they warn that these impacts could have far-reaching effects on students’ long-term economic well-being and the US economy as a whole.

A survey of higher education presidents also revealed that many campus leaders are concerned about the pandemic’s long-term consequences on low-income students’ well-being and academic success (Lederman, 2020). The survey of 187 two- and four-year college presidents indicated that among the top short-term concerns were student and employee mental health, student attrition, and unbudgeted financial costs; enrollment declines and financial uncertainty were top long-term concerns. But the presidents’ primary worries in both the short and long term were the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on low-income and underrepresented students and the realization that these most vulnerable students may not be able to persist to degree completion and will likely have personal hardships. These concerns are validated by a recent study, conducted by researchers at Arizona State University, that found that low-income students at the university were 55 percent more likely to delay graduation and 41 percent more likely to change their major than their more affluent peers (Berg, 2020). Additionally, FAFSA renewal applications for the 2020–21 school year were down 5 percent from 2019–20 for students from the lowest-income backgrounds (Markell, 2020). These results suggest that students may be delaying college enrollment or taking a gap year.

In a recent article, Long and Douglas-Gabriele (2020) reported that low-income students, a group that includes a disproportionate number of underrepresented students, are the most likely to drop out or not enroll. Significant fall enrollment losses were seen among African American students (following steep declines in the summer) and rural White students, groups that were hit hard by employment losses and health issues related to COVID-19. This is not good news because it has been documented that dropouts and stop-outs among low-income students rarely (only 13 percent) return to school.

Researchers at IUPUI conducted a survey designed to identify the challenges and struggles that students encountered as they transitioned to an all-online instructional model (Hansen et al., 2020a). A complementary survey was also administered to all instructors (Hansen et. al., 2020b). To understand the effects of the pandemic and sudden shift to online learning on low-income students, we conducted a series of analyses comparing the responses from undergraduates who received a Federal Pell Grant to those from undergraduates who did not receive one. Receiving a Pell Grant is a good indicator of low-income status because of the factors that are used to determine whether a student is Pell eligible during the FAFSA process. Low-income students were significantly less likely to agree that they adapted easily to online learning: 2.93 compared to 3.00 (on a scale ranging from 1 = strongly agree to 5 = strongly agree). Compared to other students, low-income students were also more likely to report financial challenges (51 vs. 37 percent), lack access to high-speed internet (30 vs. 23 percent), experience distractions at home (77 vs. 72 percent), and have learning challenges due to difficulties studying (52 vs. 48 percent). Also, a significantly higher number of low-income students were from historically marginalized groups (African American/Black, Latinx, Native American, two or more races): 37 vs. 14 percent. The complementary instructor survey indicated that instructors were keenly aware of the struggles low-income students were facing and inequities in terms of access to technology, distractions at home, students’ loss of jobs, and struggles with staying focused and motivated (Hansen et al., 2020b).

Addressing the needs of and barriers faced by low-income students and students from historically marginalized groups necessitates that institutions take a multifaceted approach and consider interventions at the institutional, course, and student levels. It is clear that institutions and campus leaders should take proactive steps to ensure that all students have quality social and academic experiences during this disruptive and uncertain time. Campus leaders and researchers should investigate potential student equity disparities by disaggregating survey responses and outcomes by student groups to determine whether there are significant differences between groups (e.g., LGBTQ+, international, first-generation, nontraditional, and transfer students). To ensure that courses, programs, and interventions respond to students’ diverse needs and learning approaches, institutions will need to evaluate the quality and outcomes of experiences. It is critical to share findings from investigations and surveys with key decision-makers across campus so that data-driven action plans can be developed. Instructors can take a number of steps to enhance all students’ learning experiences. Ideally, instructors are flexible and responsive, attend to issues of equity, seek solutions when students cannot meet deadlines, and assess students’ learning resource needs.


Berg, A. (2020, June 23). Low-income students are disproportionally hurt by the pandemic: Here’s a look at the toll. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/low-income-students-are-disproportionately-hurt-by-the-pandemic-heres-a-glimpse-of-the-toll

Dorn, E., Hancock, B., Sarakatsannis, J., & Viruleg, E. (2020, June 1). COVID-19 and student learning in the United States: The hurt could last a lifetime. McKinsey & Company. https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/public-sector/our-insights/covid-19-and-student-learning-in-the-united-states-the-hurt-could-last-a-lifetime

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

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

Henriquez, G. (2020, August 26). International students struggle to access information amid COVID-19 crisis. Global News. https://globalnews.ca/news/7300529/international-students-struggle-to-access-information-amid-covid-19-crisis

Lederman, D. (2020, April 27). Low-income students top presidents’ COVID-19 worry list. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/news/survey/presidents-biggest-covid-19-worries-low-income-students-and-colleges-financial-strain

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

Markell, J. (2020, August 4). Focus on the most vulnerable. Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2020/08/04/colleges-must-take-steps-support-most-vulnerable-students-during-pandemic-opinion

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

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.

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