Dear university administrators:
I am sharing my thoughts and perspective with you because I think that it is important that you understand what many low-income, first-generation college students are experiencing in the heat of the coronavirus situation.
While I understand your concerns about maintaining the safety and health of the campus community, it is not uncommon for students from low-income and first-gen backgrounds to support themselves through on-campus employment opportunities. Because so many students are dependent on these, the loss of income that many students will experience should be at the top of the priority list.
As it stands, I have three credit card bills, multiple medical bills and a cellphone bill that do not care about the coronavirus. Regardless of where I am and what I am doing, my creditors expect to get paid. And it will be me via my credit score that takes the hit if I cannot pay them.
Students are not faculty and staff members with guaranteed salaries. We are mostly hourly employees or contract workers whose lives depend on our ability to support ourselves. We are our own last resort because we have fully maximized the resources provided by our schools, families and peers.
Students understand that things are evolving, but the last-minuteness of the coronavirus does not change the fact that we need strong directives and guidance that are fully fleshed out and considerate of the challenges that we face. Living in limbo land, waiting for a new update or being referred to empty webpage, does not alleviate the stress and anxiety that I and many others feel as we consider our next steps.
You should also know that I and many other students are not able to buy plane tickets at the flip of a coin. I make most of my flight arrangements around regular seasonal holidays and expected breaks. I fly home for Thanksgiving and winter break because they are baked into the academic calendar -- they’re where they have been and will be for the next few years. These dates are solid and set well enough in advance that students have ample time to prepare.
The directive of "go home and do not return to campus," however, is one that does not allow us to prepare. I am from a small rural town where the local airports see little traffic, so a trip home for me is nothing less than $300 for a one-way ticket. Worse than that is the doubled amount of $600 that I will have to pay if I am required and expected to return to campus in, say, a few weeks or at the end of the month if courses return to a face-to-face format.
On another note, I also think that it is worthwhile to start considering the other financial impacts that this situation will have on students. Many institutions, like Harvard University, frame their academic prestige around face-to-face contact where classes have 20 students or less. This practice falls apart the moment you shift intense discussion-based courses to an online format. While professors certainly know their disciplines well enough to instruct online courses, courses of this sort (at least for colleges/programs that regularly offer only face-to-face courses) reflect a loss of value to me.
What happens when professors are forced to redesign their courses midsemester? How are scientists supposed to engage students in labs online? What happens to office hours? All of these are important questions that at least one low-income, first-gen student is asking.
I am also thinking about the fact that there is no Blackboard or Moodle discussion box that is big enough to contextualize all the thoughts that students have in class. Professors have very few ways to encourage connection and interaction online, and I fear that students will just not care about their courses as much as they do in an actual class where the professor or other students hold them accountable.
I hope that you, as administrators tasked with making big decisions, are also considering, at minimum, a refund or advance credit for room and board charges. Many parents and students, me included, have paid tens of thousands of dollars for our room and meal plans that will not be utilized in the foreseeable future. Many of us take out loans to cover these expenses, and it is harsh and unreasonable to force us to pay for things that we won’t use. Students and parents are counting every penny that it takes to finance a college degree, and paying for things we don’t use is literally like throwing cash in the trash.
As questions and concerns arise, please continue to consult your stakeholders, but know that students and their parents are the most important constituencies. While you all undoubtedly report to a supervisor of some sort, your decisions should be informed not only by those supervisors but by students and their parents, as well. That means listening to the concerns of your minority student population and doing everything that you can to ensure their needs are being met and supported. Do right by them, and worry about the consequences later.