Covid-19 Is a Pivotal Moment for Struggling Students. Can Colleges Step Up?
Updated: May 27
Elizabeth Ouanemalay slips on rubber gloves and wraps a black scarf with pink hearts around her face before venturing outside. She obsessively counts how many door handles she touches on the journey to pick up each of her meals: six. No one wants Covid-19, but she really doesn’t want it. She has lupus, an autoimmune disease. The Wesleyan University freshman is fearing for more than just her physical safety, though. She is a first-generation student from a low-income family, and the virus has also upended her fledgling academic and financial security. The California native spent part of high school homeless, living in a car with her mom and working as a waitress and at other jobs to support the two of them. She also struggled through her first semester at Wesleyan, withdrawing from one class and clawing through her others..
Now she is facing the threat of coronavirus, alone on a largely deserted campus and uncertain what her future at Wesleyan will look like. The burden the pandemic is placing on many students has exposed the staggering class divides that have always existed in higher education. For many students, going home to study online — missing activities like team sports or even their commencement ceremony — represents a rough patch they’ll get through. But for students like Ouanemalay, this is a time of extraordinary stress. Without campus jobs, they don’t know what they’ll do for income. Some are disoriented by the online migration; others don’t even have the internet. Some can’t afford to travel home, or have no home to go to. These are the students colleges say they desperately want to reach and serve. These are the students colleges are most at risk of losing in the months ahead.
"Is seeking a college degree under extreme stress and financial insecurity always worth the hassle? Colleges must prove that the answer is yes."
Over the past several years, colleges have opened their doors to an increasing number of students like Ouanemalay. But the promise of higher education as an engine of social mobility rests on whether it can deliver on the commitment to get them to the finish line. Those that have raised graduation rates for low-income students have often relied on wraparound services, addressing the needs of the whole student. That includes caring for their financial and mental health, and creating a network of support with cohorts, early interventions, and extra counseling. A “high touch” learning environment, as many advocates call it. But how do you do high touch in what has suddenly become a “no touch” world? How do you support the financially insecure students you have enticed to join your institutions? For students who already struggle to stay enrolled, and for the institutions who say they are committed to keeping them, the Covid-19 crisis may be a make-or-break moment.
But how do you do high touch in what has suddenly become a “no touch” world? How do you support the financially insecure students you have enticed to join your institutions? For students who already struggle to stay enrolled, and for the institutions who say they are committed to keeping them, the Covid-19 crisis may be a make-or-break moment.
“If we are successful in retention during this unprecedented time, it will be because of the relationships that were already developed.”
Colleges will need resolve and creativity. One model they might look to is Arrupe College. The two-year institution was established by Loyola University Chicago specifically to serve as a bridge to a four-year college for financially needy students. In the argument that it’s life circumstances, and not ability, that reinforces higher education’s class divides, Arrupe College is Exhibit A. Nearly nine in 10 of the students who complete the associate degree go on to four-year institutions. That success is especially impressive considering that 80 percent of Arrupe’s students are eligible for Pell Grants. Angelo Villazana is one of them. Villazana had attended something like a dozen different public schools by the time he graduated from high school. His grades were poor for most of high school because he was often homeless and school wasn’t a priority. He turned around his academic life during his senior year, when he finally found stable shelter in a group home. By then, he thought, it was too late for him to be accepted by a four-year college because of his poor GPA. But he learned about Arrupe from a high-school counselor. The promise Arrupe has made to Villazana and other students is that they will be slathered in support. The college guarantees generous financial aid, easy and convenient access to mental-health services, and extensive individual contact with professors who are also trained as counselors. All students receive a laptop and free on-campus breakfast and lunch daily. Like most colleges, Arrupe, which has about 300 students, last month moved all its courses online. “It’s very disorienting, because our focus here is on building community,” says Father Steve Katsouros, the college’s dean and founding director. “We’ve been committed to face-to-face instruction, and that’s been upended.”