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“I am a full-time college student. I focus hard on my education and make Honor Roll every semester. But since Covid-19 occurred, both of my part-time jobs have shut down. I owe my landlord $440 in rent, along with $100 for car insurance. I have no money, not even for food or gas.”

That email is the 212th that I’ve received since U.S. colleges and universities began shutting down due to the coronavirus pandemic. It was written by a student in a community college in Ohio.

From the media coverage, you’d think that the current crisis was mainly a problem of dorms closing at Harvard and Amherst. That’s not true. Rather, the current pandemic is exposing some of the devastating consequences of the vast inequality that marks all aspects of American society.

Inequality hits hard in higher education. For more than fifty years, we’ve been told that giving low-income students financial aid makes college affordable. Over the past decade, researchers like me have shown what low-income students know in their bones: It’s a lie.

Related: COLUMN: Closing campuses doesn’t necessarily move vulnerable people out of harm’s way

The truth is that the preponderance of money in higher education, including public subsidies and private philanthropy, flows to students with the greatest wealth. The nation’s college dollars are concentrated in the elite private colleges, which wealthy students disproportionately attend, rather than the nation’s public regional universities and community colleges where most Americans go.

Indeed, just 25 institutions hold about half of all U.S. endowment assets. Although Covid-19 is creating a whole new wave of emergencies, the risk of homelessness is nothing new to the millions of college students who were already in financially precarious circumstances before the coronavirus hit.

Last month, for example, my research team at Temple University released a report showing that among the more than 330,000 college students who have responded to our surveys over the last five years, rates of housing insecurity ranged from 46 percent to 60 percent at public two-year colleges, and from 35 percent to 48 percent at four-year colleges and universities. These students were struggling to pay their rent and utilities while their colleges were open, not closed, and while their classes were in session.

Their living conditions were already compromising their ability to learn. This is very far from what life is like for students from wealthy families at elite universities. Some would argue that public colleges get tax dollars directly, so there is really no comparison with private universities. But that argument fails to acknowledge that public and private colleges alike get payments through federal and state financial-aid programs and federal research dollars, and that private institutions classified as nonprofits (the vast majority of private colleges and universities) receive huge subsidies in the form of tax-deductible donations.

Take New Jersey, where researchers estimate that taxpayers subsidize Princeton University to the tune of $105,000 per full-time equivalent student, compared to $12,300 per student at the New Jersey state flagship, Rutgers University; $4,700 per pupil at the regional Montclair State University; and just $2,400 per student at Essex County College.

The financial-aid system in the United States is supposed to level these inequalities at least enough to let low-income students have a good chance to get an education. In my research, I have found that the financial-aid system often fails and, indeed, imposes heavy costs on students in terms of time burdens as well as application and compliance requirements that prevent students with significant need from getting help.

Related: In dark days of coronavirus, a little kindness can restore students’ faith

These administrative burdens mean that access to funds is often an illusion. The system’s means test also inaccurately declares many so-called middle-class students as “non-needy” and assumes that every student has parental support. That cuts off many students, including LGBTQIA+ individuals estranged from their families, from grants at a time when today’s middle class is squeezed so tightly that even public higher education is often out of reach. In a crisis, emergency-aid dollars often come from endowments or foundations.

At private research universities, median endowment spending per student approaches $4,000, while it’s about $1,000 per student at public universities, and just $200 at community colleges. While Harvard sits on a nearly $40 billion endowment, across town at Bunker Hill Community College two-thirds of the students are affected by basic-needs insecurity, but the foundation has assets of just under $7 million.

Scientists suggest that this pandemic could last a long time. As we battle it, we must remember that it’s not enough to fight our way back to the status quo that we had in February. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) has proposed a $1.2 billion emergency-aid fund for students and financial aid flexibilities, and that legislation should be passed immediately. But we must go further and remedy the profoundly inadequate and unequal higher education funding system in the United States.

Bunker Hill should not have to fund a meal voucher program to help students eat every day; rather, the National School Lunch Program should simply be expanded to include public colleges alongside public K-12 schools. Colleges that enroll the largest numbers of students from the bottom half of the U.S. income distribution and commit to admitting students rather than turning them away should be the ones that receive public funding. At a time when barely one in five good jobs is available without education beyond high school, we need to focus on institutions that commit to serving the masses rather than protecting the elite.

Finally, let’s allow this crisis to force us to get real about who today’s college students are, and what it takes to help them succeed. It’s hard to learn — online or in person — if you haven’t eaten or slept. The vast majority of college students are juggling work and school, and an estimated 4.3 million of them have children. Their basic needs must come first.

This story about equity in U.S. higher education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is founding director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University.

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Sara Goldrick-Rab is founding director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University.

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