August 2020

Economic Inequality and Covid Shutdown in Higher Education: One Student’s Story

An undergraduate describes the economic challenges of the coronavirus shutdown at an elite university.

by Karis Clark

After an hour of shoveling snow from an unexpected snowstorm in central Illinois, I sat down with frozen fingers for a class discussion on Zoom. Rather than focusing on the French Revolution, as I anticipated, however, I found myself distracted by my classmates. While I don’t begrudge them for their comfortable circumstances, I could not help but compare our situations as I watched several of my classmates sunbathing poolside during the class period. Since I had been forced to relocate from my dorm room at Boston University in March, a combination of factors—my budget laptop, rural location, and bad weather—meant that I struggled to understand my professors and peers in class and vice versa. Witnessing my peers in comparatively enviable living and learning situations as Covid forced us to transition to online learning was one of the more frustrating moments of the pandemic. In the best of times, low-income students like myself are at a significant disadvantage due to the structuring of the collegiate system, from the cost of attendance to the fees of textbooks and technology to the hidden costs along the way. But it was during that Zoom session that I fully realized how much those wealth disparities were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

It was a struggle to get into Boston University from a poorly-funded school district without disposable income for supplemental educational tools like AP classes or the best technology. Once I arrived at BU, though, I felt that the playing field was much more even.  My classmates and I had the same internet, the same lectures, the same housing, the same food. Even if my peers could afford tutors and new textbooks and better technology, the most basic of our needs were covered, allowing us to dedicate ourselves to our academic pursuits.

Karis on move in day, January 2020.

When the pandemic hit, though, the playing field changed too. As a scholarship student at BU, I relied on my university housing, a subsidized dining plan, internet, and work-study employment to stay afloat. When Boston University’s campus closed down in March, I became responsible for all of my most basic needs, in addition to trying to keep up with being a full-time student transitioning to online learning. When I returned home to rural Illinois, I presumed the move was temporary, as the university promised a return to campus in mid-April. Had this assurance not been made, I could have applied to remain on campus with the comfort of my scholarship covering food, internet, transport, and technology. Instead, like other low-income students, I was stuck fending for myself. To make ends meet, every night I stayed up late finishing schoolwork after hours of chores, cooking, tutoring, and studying. During a particularly stressful time, I remember deciding between buying groceries and reordering a textbook left in my dorm. 

Every late night was a reminder that the collegiate system allowed me to fall through the cracks.  Between the stimulus check, the CARES Act emergency funding, and a small refund from Boston University, I was lucky enough to have the money to cover the majority of the expenses resulting from the pandemic. But I am left wondering: what happened to those who didn’t receive these subsidies or whose expenses exceeded what was provided? What is the university doing to prevent these students from hitting rock-bottom? The troubling answer is: very little.

BU attempted to help students negatively impacted by the transition to online learning by implementing a Credit/No Credit policy for grades during the spring semester and assuring students that professors would be flexible and understanding of students’ new circumstances. While I am appreciative that the university took the small measures that they did, I’m frustrated that it took a global pandemic for the university administration to acknowledge the difference in circumstances for their students. BU’s response showed that university officials could encourage more flexibility and accommodations for students during a pandemic, when all students were facing learning challenges, but chose not to be flexible for students that needed it before COVID hit. For example, this attitude of acceptance was not present when I couldn’t afford textbooks during my first semester, or when I struggled to balance 15 hours of work per week along with classes. Despite astronomically high tuition costs, BU still allows professors to assign textbooks, clickers, lab manuals, and online homework subscriptions, some of which cost hundreds of dollars each.  While some of my individual professors were incredibly understanding prior to COVID, it was not the norm, and administrators certainly did not involve themselves in such matters.        

The author’s hometown during an April snowstorm.

Despite the university’s assurances, attendance in classes remained mandatory, final exams were taken on Zoom, and participation was required. For someone with limited access to the internet, these methods of structuring the online learning system made it incredibly difficult for me to succeed. So even with the university’s promises of flexibility, administrators failed to understand and address the specific challenges of students of low socioeconomic backgrounds during the crisis.

In the capitalistic United States, many Americans still believe that the country is a land of opportunity and that with a little hard work, you can pull yourself up by the bootstraps. Unfortunately, as university life during COVID-19 revealed, the truth is far from that. This pandemic has made obvious the failings of higher education to consider class equity, particularly within the country’s most elite institutions. Moving forward, administrators need to acknowledge the ingrained classism that prioritizes the wealthy and begin to restructure their institutions to allow higher education to be available to those from all economic circumstances. I hope that the pandemic will inspire universities to reconsider how they structure admissions, tuition, remote-learning, and financial aid. I hope I’ll have the chance to live in an economy where one’s background does not dictate one’s future. I don’t know if I will see these ideas come to fruition, but as we rebuild from the pandemic, I hope that things do not return to the normal we once knew; I hope that they are better.

Karis Clark is a sophomore at Boston University studying human physiology on the premed track. During the school year, she is an office assistant at the Boston University Global Office and during summers works as a nursing technician at a local Illinois hospital. Growing up, she spent 14 years living abroad in Oman, Kuwait, and Scotland and those experiences have led her to be incredibly passionate about international affairs. Additionally, she is passionate about wealth inequality, especially as it relates to the higher education and the healthcare system.

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