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Luis Gallardo’s favorite place to study was the library at the University of California, Berkeley. He preferred to work at night when it was quiet, and the distractions of the day didn’t pull at his mind. But last week, with the campus closed due to the coronavirus, his refuge and the resources that came with it were suddenly gone. He spent more than one morning at his family’s kitchen table, staring at his laptop, his thoughts frayed. He was looking after his younger sister, brother and cousin, who were trying to manage their own schoolwork, now online. His mom eventually came home after her shift at McDonald’s and sat down next to him. All the chairs were filled.
He’s tried to study at night, when the two-bedroom Los Angeles apartment he shares with seven family members settles down. But his mind feels crowded even then. He sleeps on a futon in the living room, with his uncle nearby, and after a long day that resists structure, it’s difficult to focus.
“It’s a lot more challenging to be able to concentrate and fully deliver,” said Gallardo, 20, who is a junior majoring in political science, and the first in his family to go to college. “I try to make a to-do list, but I end up not even finishing it. It’s just a very unpredictable time.”
Gallardo is determined to finish his classes this semester and stay on track for graduation, although he’s not sure how all the financial pieces will fit together. He has a job he can do remotely, but it ends this month and he hasn’t gotten an offer from any of the summer positions to which he’s applied.
“It’s a lot more challenging to be able to concentrate and fully deliver. I try to make a to-do list, but I end up not even finishing it. It’s just a very unpredictable time.”Luis Gallardo, student, University of California, Berkeley
For many students, the switch from the classroom to studying at home is mostly a disorienting inconvenience. They miss their friends, their freedom and learning from a human being instead of a screen, but their chances of graduating are unlikely to change.
For low-income students, though, the situation can be dire. Earning a degree is challenging in the best of circumstances — graduation rates for low-income students have remained stubbornly low for decades. Only 14 percent of the lowest-income students earn a bachelor’s degree within eight years of first enrolling, according to the most recent government data. Juggling bills, jobs and family responsibilities can make it difficult to find the time and head space to study.
The coronavirus pandemic is exacerbating those pressures. Students who lived on campus are trying to keep up their grades at home, some in cramped or emotionally tense living conditions. Adult students who have children are being buried by home-schooling demands. Some students don’t have internet access or the computers they now need to do their coursework. And even without technology problems, catastrophic job losses are plunging some families into economic peril.
Related: Online higher education isn’t winning over students forced off campus by the coronavirus
As a result, the risk of dropping out is growing among the students who most need a degree to pry themselves out of poverty.
“We know from experience that even small, unexpected expenses can really trip up low-income students and interfere with their likelihood of returning,” said Jenna Sablan, an assistant research professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “Now, with the coronavirus, you have a double whammy of not only new expenses but the likelihood of lower incomes both for the student and their families.”
Vasiki Konneh, who is 21 years old, is back home from Colby College in Maine, trying to complete his courses online, in close quarters; he’s in lockdown with five family members in a two-bedroom apartment in New York City. A physics major, he worries about not being able to go to his professors for help with difficult classes. Konneh’s dad is a carpenter; he doesn’t get paid if he doesn’t work. “I have to worry about my schoolwork, but also my family and well-being,” he said.
Maria Romo-Gonzalez, a 22-year-old senior at the University of California, Berkeley, struggles with spotty internet access; her mom’s salary as a grocery store cashier doesn’t allow for extras. She worried she would have to withdraw from classes last month after her internet kept going down during a class designed to prepare students for a midterm.
“We know from experience that even small, unexpected expenses can really trip up low-income students and interfere with their likelihood of returning.”Jenna Sablan, assistant research professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce
For older students struggling to support themselves, the road to graduation can be even tougher. Consuela Robinson, 35, returned to college in 2017 after dropping out more than a decade earlier, working two, sometimes three jobs to make ends meet. Last month, she lost her night job at a Marriott hotel in Seattle after Washington state was hit hard by the coronavirus. She bought her first house last fall — owning her own home had been her dream ever since she was a young girl in foster care. Now, she doesn’t know how she’ll pay her mortgage.
“It would be really hard not to finish my classes, because I’ve worked extremely hard to get to where I am now,” said Robinson, who is majoring in health care management, online, at Park University. “But it would be hard if I lost my house, too. Either way it’s going to be a hard pill to swallow.”
Most students who drop out of college don’t return soon, if at all. In 2013, there were some 29 million students who had left college in the last two decades before earning a degree. Five years later, only 13 percent of them had reenrolled, according to a study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.
“Once a student stops out, it can be harder to go back,” said Malik Brown, executive director of Graduate! Philadelphia, a nonprofit that works to help low-income adult students. “If you need to focus on making sure you and your children have food, shelter — education comes after those things.”
Brown said students told his group that since the lockdowns started, their most persistent problems have been lack of internet access, child care and food. An education technology company called Course Hero surveyed students last month about their financial needs; among the more than 14,000 who responded, rent and food were nearly tied for first place.
Some students are considering postponing enrollment this fall, and many say that the pandemic will affect their ability to pay for college, according to other recent surveys.
Related: Canceled research, sports, recitals — college students are coping with more than closed campuses
Classes at the University of California, Davis stopped meeting in person the week before final exams, which almost made Paul Abrena sorry that he had opted for upper-level computer science classes. Abrena, a sophomore, had never taken a class online, and finds studying that way takes much longer. When he signed up at 1 p.m. for a professor’s virtual office hours, with questions about an assignment due at midnight, he didn’t get to talk to the professor until 9 p.m. The university is allowing students to take some courses pass-fail, but that option isn’t available for the three computer science courses he’s taking that are required for his major.
“One of the things I think about now is, ‘Am I going to have enough money to continue?’ I feel like it’s going to be a long time before we can ever get back to normal.”Paul Abrena, student, University of California, Davis
“My future really relies on how I perform academically now,” said Paul, who is 19 years old. “If I want to become employable, I need to keep a good GPA.”
Adding to the stress of his coursework is his family’s financial situation. His dad’s company cut his hours and slashed his pay to minimum wage, Abrena said, with no guarantee of how long he would stay employed. Both he and his dad took out loans for Paul to go to college, which covered tuition, but he still needs to buy a few books for this semester, and then there’s rent and food. His dad has always helped him out financially, but now that support may be impossible. His current job with the university’s IT department can’t cover everything.
The idea of withdrawing from classes for a year has crossed his mind, but he knows that he needs a degree if he wants a shot at financial security — especially given the debt he’s taken on.
“One of the things I think about now is, ‘Am I going to have enough money to continue?’ ” he said. “I feel like it’s going to be a long time before we can ever get back to normal.”
This story about online education produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization covering inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.
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