The coronavirus doesn’t discriminate—poor students and rich students, exalted Ivy League institutions and middling commuter schools will all be forced to take harsh isolationist measures in the name of social distancing. Although for some colleges, shutting down a campus can be a mild nuisance for most students, at less-prestigious ones, a closure can amount to a five-alarm fire.
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“The real story is not Harvard,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a Temple University professor who runs the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. “It’s at Bunker Hill Community College across town. It’s what’s going to happen to the Community College of Philadelphia.”
Elite colleges are best positioned to ride out the tumult of a closure, because of the most simple economic equation around: They are stocked with the progeny of the über-rich. Thirty-eight elite colleges, including most of the Ivy League, enroll more students from the top 1 percent than the bottom 60 percent. But the typical American college student isn’t clad in Canada Goose. She’s barely getting by. When Goldrick-Rab and her colleagues surveyed nearly 167,000 college students at more than 200 institutions nationwide about their well-being last year, they found that nearly half of students suffered from housing instability, while nearly 40 percent had gone hungry in the past month. At community colleges, those rates were even higher. Harvard’s largely wealthy student body may be prepared to deal with the financial and academic fallout of a pandemic-triggered school shutdown, but many students elsewhere aren’t at all.
International students, who have no home in the United States besides their colleges, perhaps have the most to lose from the closures. Stephen Nwalorizi, a senior at Berea College in Kentucky, was panicked when his school announced that it would fully cancel the rest of the semester. Nwalorizi thought the move was “going to end my education,” he told me, because he’s a citizen of Nigeria, which was added to the Trump administration’s travel-ban list last month. The school ultimately granted him an exemption to stay on campus, so his immigration status is, for now, secure.
Even low-income students who are U.S. citizens are at risk of leaving college for good. “There’s a very real chance that students facing financial crises—which are about to get worse—will not be coming back to school,” Goldrick-Rab says. “This is a disaster. You’re putting the most disadvantaged students at a bigger educational disadvantage.”
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Students at some institutions may have nowhere else to go after their campus closes down, and yet the cruel irony is that the students most in need of help attend institutions that are least able to give it. Elite schools such as Davidson College and Princeton University helped their students with the cost of tickets home and doled out loaner laptops to those who need them—but that sort of safety net isn’t an option at public colleges that were cash-starved even before the economy went south. (Harvard’s $41 billion endowment is larger than the combined bank account of every single community college in America—and it’s not even remotely close.)