Low-Income Students Face Extra Hurdles In School Disruption

By Kayla Bey

Lilburn, GA.

Mauricio Vazquez, a 19-year-old rising sophomore at Chapman University and Princeton Summer Journalism Program alum, was alarmed when he logged onto his computer days before finals week and saw he had an F in his class. After switching his evaluation from letter grades to pass/fail, Vazquez ended up barely passing. But he considers the effort he put into that class a success. After all, he managed to pass despite the challenges of learning during the coronavirus pandemic.

This spring, colleges across the country announced a sweeping transition to online learning. At Harvard, those who left campus for spring break would not return. “They said that by Sunday everybody had to leave,” said Ryan Morillo, a Harvard
freshman and PSJP alum. “Everybody was scrambling. Nobody knew how they were going to pay for flights home, or storage.”

The sudden disruption of higher education has been especially challenging for low-income students. Kay-Ann Henry, a 21-year-old PSJP alum entering her senior year at University of Miami, says her campus urged her to stay home. However, the reality of “home” for many low-income students can be hostile—and on-campus living, a survival mechanism. “I was going through a family situation, so it wasn’t [in] my best interest to go back home,” said Henry, who was able to secure housing in the University of Miami’s
student apartments.

Morillo didn’t have the same opportunity, having already booked a plane ticket home. “Once I started classes at home, it was horrible,” he said. Around the clock, his parents would ask for help around the house. In between those moments, “I’m studying in the same room that I sleep in, and everything is like a sense of procrastination,” he said.

“I don’t go outside,” said Henry, noting the recent spike in Florida coronavirus cases. Despite living in University of Miami housing, “I wasn’t really seeing people in the other apartments. One of my suitemates stayed [on campus] because she worked security, but I would hardly see her. She would be working so much.”

Henry once thought she would appreciate remote learning. She does not. “I definitely miss that social aspect. There’s just some classes that work better in person.”

Morillo agrees. Though he appreciates Harvard’s mandatory pass/fail policy to mitigate the consequences of a “rough transition,” Morillo is now worried about how his transcript will affect his graduate school applications. “Not all schools did that,” he said.
“It’s going to weigh in in the future.” Graduating college on time is an integral component of that future, especially when low-income students are more likely to leave college regardless of a global pandemic.

M, a 19-year-old rising sophomore at Arizona State University, is an undocumented immigrant. Despite living so close to campus that she commutes there, her undocumented status would force her to pay out-of-state tuition if she was without a full-ride scholarship.

M can’t imagine taking a gap year, never mind the thought of leaving school entirely. “My scholarships are also strictly for four years. I know I talked about it with my friends,” she said. “For them [taking a semester off] was an option, but, for me, because
of my scholarship, it wasn’t really an option.”

But while the coronavirus has upended higher education, especially for low-income students, there are some upsides to studying during a pandemic.

“Doing school right now is difficult, but it’s keeping me busy,” said Vazquez. “It’s given me something else to think about other than everything else going on in the world, and I very much need a distraction.”


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