Low-income, first-generation college students of color are demonstrating resilience across the country amid the coronavirus pandemic. Some are trying to put food on their families’ tables. Some have undocumented parents who have lost work and don’t qualify for unemployment benefits. Other students are newly homeless, having been asked to leave a rented room when the novel coronavirus made having a housemate seem risky. Still more are balancing their own college classes with home schooling their elementary-school-age children or siblings and translating for English learners in their families coping with the crisis.
These are typical students at California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), located in the Greater Los Angeles region, and they are also quite typical of college students across the country. Today’s students are more likely to be low income, students of color, and parents than previous generations. In order to address educational equity during and after the pandemic, policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels must understand the depth of the challenges that these students and the colleges they attend face. To highlight these needs, the Center for American Progress spoke to two administrators at CSUDH who shared on-the-ground perspectives on how COVID-19 is disrupting higher education, far beyond the abrupt shift to online instruction.
William Franklin, vice president for student affairs, and Matthew Smith, interim associate vice president of student life and dean of students, spoke to CAP via Zoom. Smith spoke from the nursery that awaits his first child, due in May. Franklin sat at his mahogany desk on campus, where the physical presence of a top administrator is needed, leaving his partner alone at home to home school their 6-year-old.
Smith and Franklin emphasized that the pandemic did not start a basic needs crisis; it exacerbated one that was already there.
CSUDH enrolls a historically underserved student body. According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, among nearly 14,000 undergraduate students, 64 percent are Hispanic/Latino, 11 percent are Black or African American, 8 percent are Asian, and 6 percent are white. Approximately 72 percent of CSUDH undergraduate students are eligible for Pell Grants—the main federal aid program for low-income students—and an estimated 56 percent are first-generation college students. According to a recent study, CSUDH is the top four-year institution in the nation for its price-to-earnings premium, meaning graduates with a bachelor’s degree recoup the cost of obtaining their credential faster than graduates of any other institution.
Before the pandemic, CSUDH—like many other minority-serving institutions—already had resources in place to meet the unique challenges its students face and improve equity, such as laptop loans, a program addressing basic needs such as food and housing, and a center for students who come from families with mixed citizenship statuses or are undocumented or DACAmented themselves. These resources have helped CSUDH in the weeks since the pandemic arrived in California, and the college’s experience working on these topics guided equity-minded choices such as allowing a small number of students to stay in campus housing if they had nowhere else to go.
Franklin and Smith spoke about the positive effect they expect to see when their students begin to receive emergency funding appropriated in the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. But they also emphasized the need for Congress to do more for struggling students and institutions in the next stimulus bill and to continue supporting minority-serving institutions in the long run. “This is not just an investment in our students who are currently here, it’s an investment two, three, four generations down the line,” Franklin said.
This interview, conducted April 3, 2020, has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
CAP: We saw from the university website that you have taken a number of actions, including requesting that students who can move off campus move out of their housing, and offering of emergency funds and loaner laptops. How is all that going?
Franklin: This thing has happened in waves. [The first instructions were] “We want you to maintain social distancing.” So then we set out to do laptop loans and other things related to it. And then things began to ratchet up, in terms of, “Well, we don’t just want social distancing, we now want everybody to go home. Like, get out of here.” And so last week, the laptop loan program was going really well, with some great social distancing measures in place in our administration building. Folks would make appointments to come in, until we actually closed that building down. And now it’s in one of our parking lots. So as things have ratcheted up, we’ve had to shift programming and services to respond to them.
Smith: For our basic needs program, we had a great setup going, in terms of distributing food to students, that really helped with social distancing. And then we had to shut that down. And so now we’re looking at, how do we create a drive-thru food pantry?
When we opened up [a social distancing food pantry], we had about 56 bags [of groceries]. By the end of the day, there were only about 12 or 14 bags left. And so we know the demand is there, but we also know that our supply is low. When we shut down the building where our food pantry is, that also shut down our dining operation, which shut down our supply line to food. When you look online to try to order food, it’s going to be probably late April and possibly all the way into early May [until deliveries are available]. So we have some supplies now for the short term, and when we open the drive thru on Tuesday, that will last us a few days. And then we will shut down again until we get more supplies.
Franklin: We also have gift cards to some drive-up places and Uber Eats, and some other ways of getting meals with social distancing.
CAP: Are there certain populations of students who are facing unique or more severe challenges?
Franklin: We have a critical mass of undocumented students, and in a COVID crisis, being undocumented brings a whole host of other issues that we just can’t imagine.
Smith: We see a lot of responses from our students now who may themselves not be undocumented, but their parents are undocumented, and their parents have lost their job and don’t qualify for unemployment or the other benefits that are being shared widely right now. It puts them in some really challenging situations, where they turn to see what type of information or resources we can provide. We have a great team in our Toro Dreamers Success Center, and their office numbers are now being forwarded to their work cell phone. Most of our undocumented students don’t want to show up to group online sessions that are specifically for undocumented students, and so they’re having a lot more one-on-one conversations.
CAP: Earlier, you mentioned a student writing to ask for help from his car. Did you mean that the student is living in his car?
Smith: That particular student was waiting for a COVID-19 test result to come back. The student has, basically, self-quarantined into a car and lost their place to stay. A lot of our students are renting rooms because of the cost of housing in LA, they have roommates, or their housing situation is unstable. And when a pandemic comes up and people are unsure about safety issues, we’ve had students who have been asked to leave the room they were renting in someone else’s house, because [the homeowners] were concerned for their own safety, or because they have an elderly family member they need to now move into their home in order to take care of that individual.
Franklin: I was heartened because he knew he could reach out to the university, and that it would get somewhere. That’s what we’re in the business to do. And some folks still debate that business [of whether addressing basic needs is part of a college’s role]. But CSU Dominguez Hills was born out of social justice roots. That’s who we are. And that’s who we get the honor of serving. And why not us? And if not us, then who is going to partner with us to make this happen?
You know that this pandemic didn’t start a basic needs crisis. It just exacerbated the one that already existed.
This pandemic didn't start a basic needs crisis. It just exacerbated the one that already existed.
CAP: The American Council on Education conducted an initial analysis of how much support each institution will receive from the CARES Act. According to that, CSUDH will receive about $18 million, half of which will need to be used for emergency grants to students. How do you expect that funding to be used? Is it enough?
Franklin: It passed quicker than most bills leaving Washington, so I’m not going to cast any aspersion there. Now we’re hoping that all of the red tape gets let out and we can begin putting money in students’ accounts and in their pockets. We also want to get our students submitted for some of the loan forgiveness pieces. But I can guarantee you that the $18 million will only scratch the surface.
Smith: I just want to emphasize the importance of putting money into the accounts and pockets of our students. When I was in college, I was someone who would have been in need of basic needs services, especially around housing. It’s great to be able to provide a student with a bag of groceries. But often when I’m coming to pick up a bag of groceries from you, there are larger issues that I’m also facing around housing, around hygiene, around access to medical care. And when you can put $1,000 into a student’s pocket, you may be able to provide 30 days of housing for that student, you may be able to help them pay for medical care that they desperately need. There’s a whole host of things that could come, which could free up additional money for them to go and buy food.
I can guarantee you that the $18 million will only scratch the surface.
CAP: Do you have advice for policymakers in Washington on what should be in the next stimulus?
Franklin: I’m hoping that the next stimulus package continues in the same way that this one did [targeting money directly to students]. How do we make sure that we’re prioritizing students and we’re giving them a fair shot, an education that we know will help to change the trajectory and the economic level of generations beyond them? This is not just an investment in our students who are currently here, it’s an investment two, three, four generations down the line. The social mobility data is clear. And the investment now is going to be what stimulates America’s economy into the future.
Smith: I would recommend that they don’t forget about this focus on these institutions after the pandemic. Just like our campus is disproportionately affected by the pandemic, in terms of our student population, these students will also be disproportionately impacted after the pandemic ends. When we’re looking at minority-serving institutions, that funding needs to stay where it needs to in order to better serve those students in terms of equity.
CAP: Do you think the pandemic will affect enrollment in the fall?
Franklin: We’ve seen a considerable dip [10%] in our intent-to-enroll deposits [compared to 2019]. That doesn’t mean they don’t want to come, it means that they may not have the $99 for the new student orientation fee and the $125 for the intent-to-enroll deposit to say, “Yes, I’m coming.” So we’ve extended some deadlines. We’re looking at how to perhaps get some grant sources to help us with those.
CAP: Is there anything you wanted to touch on that we haven’t talked about yet?
Smith: I want to speak about our students. We talked a lot about where they need support, but they have also shown some tremendous resilience. We have tried to create ways to engage with them online, and I’ve been amazed at the number of them who are engaging in online pizza parties and online open mic sessions and continue to engage in their coursework while they’re supporting their siblings or supporting their parents or their grandparents. I don’t think I have the words to describe my appreciation and how I’m inspired by their perseverance and tenacity.
I want to speak about our students. We talked a lot about where they need support, but they have also shown some tremendous resilience.
The response of CSUDH to the coronavirus pandemic demonstrates the ability of colleges and universities to uphold equity in a time of crisis. It has made 255 loaner laptops available to students to participate in remote instruction, allowed 130 students who face housing insecurity to continue living on campus, distributed dozens of bags of food, and allowed students to engage with Toro Dreamer Success Center staff via text, emails, calls, and Zoom. Diverse and culturally responsive leadership may help make this possible: Smith is an expert on basic needs services and a formerly housing-insecure college student himself, while Franklin’s research focuses on the risks faced by and the resilience of African American and Latinx adolescents.
While higher education institutions can look to CSUDH for ways to mitigate the immediate effects of coronavirus on high-need student populations, more is needed from local, state, and federal policymakers to address the impact of the current financial crisis on today’s students.
First, funding for minority-serving institutions and underresourced students must be protected, increased, and structured to avert long-term budget cuts. In the last economic recession, drastic cuts to state higher education budgets led to dramatic increases in tuition and living costs, further exacerbating racial and economic inequality, despite federal economic recovery efforts. Moreover, many colleges and universities are concerned that fall enrollment and retention may be negatively affected, which could have devastating financial consequences for minority-serving institutions.
Second, policymakers must invest directly in students’ basic needs, and colleges must build institutional programs and policies to be inclusively responsive to these needs. College students without adequate food, affordable housing, transportation, child care, and mental and medical health care will not be able to fulfill their educational potential. Colleges and universities alone are not equipped to meet the basic needs of all their students. Future legislation must offer incentives for intergovernmental collaboration and local partnerships to fill this gap.
Finally, undocumented students must be supported. Federal relief for undocumented immigrants, such as unemployment benefits, has been left out of the CARES Act, which will have lasting consequences for mixed-status families. In a recent survey of 3,700 TheDream.US scholarship recipients, 92 percent of Dreamers reported that they “will not be paid or will be paid a reduced amount.” These students and families are facing acute challenges and may turn to higher education institutions for information on financial and legal resources, mental health, or medical services. States and localities, in particular, have a critical role to play in making such services available to all people, regardless of citizenship status.
If policymakers overlook these considerations, they risk causing a disproportionate intergenerational impact for today’s college students, many of whom were already struggling before the pandemic due to the steep rise in the cost of college that has been the legacy of the last economic recession. Today’s leaders have the opportunity and responsibility to ensure a more positive legacy for the post-pandemic age.
Viviann Anguiano and Marcella Bombardieri are associate directors for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.
To find the latest CAP resources on the coronavirus, visit our coronavirus resource page.