When all the universities in the United States shifted to online learning for the spring semester, administrators didn’t just need to learn how to use Zoom; they also had to find ways to continue providing essential resources like housing, internet access, and health care for students who rely on school for these services. Many institutions have yet to decide whether online learning will continue in the fall, but for public schools, with their budgets further slashed during the pandemic, an online fall semester seems all but guaranteed.
Public school students, teachers, and administrators tell Teen Vogue that the impending online fall semester means this summer will be dedicated to figuring out solutions to the many new issues that emerged during the spring semester. For students, this often means trying to advocate for themselves despite worries of repercussions from professors. For professors and administrators, this means being as flexible as possible with ever-dwindling resources.
But the story looks very different for private universities. Many have already committed to reopening in the fall, with promises to increase testing and safety protocols for students who wish to return to campus. Purdue University and the University of Notre Dame, for example, have said that they’ll be able to provide on-campus testing, along with contact tracing. Some private universities, which typically have more funds than their public counterparts, are able to assure this because federal funding has been disproportionately allocated to smaller, private, religious college institutions, while public universities have literally been left out of the conversation. In a recent call regarding coronavirus responses among 14 college presidents, which also included Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, not one community college representative was present, and more than half of the presidents were from private universities.
Thanks to the pandemic, the growing divide between public and private higher education in the U.S. threatens to turn into a chasm.
California State University (CSU), the largest four-year university system in the U.S., announced in May that all 23 of its campuses will continue online instruction for the upcoming fall semester. According to the most recent finance report published by LAist, the university system has lost at least $337 million in revenue due to the cancellation of the spring semester. There has been some federal relief given to the Cal State system, but it is expected to lose more money in the fall: California will lose an estimated $6.17 billion due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Governor Gavin Newsom, in May, proposed a $404 million budget cut for the CSU system. The Sacramento Bee reported on June 23 that the final budget deal resulted in an even bigger $500 million cut for the CSU system, with the caveat that some money could be restored if the federal government provides more aid (and with an additional $6 million in financial aid for CSU students).
For Carolyn Tinoco, the outreach coordinator for CalFresh Program at CSU Dominguez Hills, it's not just the funding cuts to universities that matter; it’s the potential cuts to federal programs that she helps students navigate. As part of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), CalFresh issues a monthly stipend that students can use to buy food — a form of online food stamps. In May, Los Angeles local ABC affiliate ABC 7 reported that enrollment in Los Angeles County, where Dominguez Hills is located, has more than tripled since the beginning of the pandemic.
Tinoco works with students to help them sign up for the program, a task made more complicated since she can’t make in-person connections with those who may be interested. “A lot of folks are confused about what a social service is," she says, “and there’s a stigma behind using these services, so a lot of students are not taking the opportunity to sign up.”
The upcoming fall semester will mark her first year as a full-time employee at CSU Dominguez Hills. Tinoco just finished getting her master’s degree in public administration from the university, and has spent the past two years advocating for students’ access to food, shelter, and mental health resources, which the school provides through its Basic Needs initiative. The majority of the student body is Black or Latino, and according to an analysis by The New York Times, the median family income is $36,900.
Tinoco has been ramping up social media outreach and trying to provide students with the resources they need, but she says it's been hard to meet everybody’s individual requests, especially now that students have moved back home. “With CalFresh, now that students are home, you are not just helping the student, you have to count the whole family,'' she explains. “And that process can be exhaustive for one person.”
Access to remote learning resources is another major issue for public school students. Miguel Dickenson was planning to transfer from his community college, Diablo Valley College, to Loyola Marymount University in the fall, but without a clear answer as to whether the private college will go online, he’s considering taking the semester off to work full-time instead. Dickenson, who says he was diagnosed with ADHD last spring, notes that he finds it difficult to concentrate in online classes, and feels that waking up every morning to stare at his computer all day is a bit “demoralizing.” He also says he feels like he’s “barely getting anything out of it.”
Resources like learning disability accommodations are hard for community college students to access in the best of times, and have virtually disappeared since the crisis started. Simple measures, like allowing students to view recorded lectures on their own time or a closed captioning provision, were difficult to locate, and will likely remain that way. Community colleges are expected to fare the worst in the upcoming state budget cut, experiencing a decrease in financial aid relief and $1 billion overall loss in funding. On a national level, community colleges have also received less funding for their students from the federal CARES Act; despite educating over 40% of the nation’s college students, they’ve only received 27% of funding, according to data analysis published by the Center for American Progress.
Diablo Valley College tells Teen Vogue that it is “committed to captioning all video content, as is required by federal law” for lectures that are recorded. If, for whatever reason, it is unable to, students can reach out to the office of Disability Support Services for additional assistance, which Dickenson didn’t realize was an option until the semester was over.
Dickenson is transferring to a private university, but he worries about facing the same issues with online learning when he starts at his new school. “It’s like I've already climbed the mountain, and then see that I have another mountain to climb,” he says.
But Loyola Marymount posted a message that assured students of its commitment to resuming fall classes on campus without many barriers; unlike Diablo Valley, Loyola Marymount has the money to back it up. According to U.S. Department of Education data on CARES Act stimulus funding for colleges and universities published by Insider Higher Ed, Loyola Marymount was granted $4.7 million in emergency federal relief, and plans to allocate it to fund reopening efforts.
Students at other public universities are wondering what their next semester will look like. Tabitha Cherubin, an incoming junior at the University of Florida, has found the lack of clarity to be especially frustrating. These days, Cherubin feels more inclined to stay at home and continue her work with the Miami Dream Defenders, a youth organization that has been leading some of the anti-police brutality protests in her hometown of Miami. She tells Teen Vogue that the desire to stay at home stems from a lack of support from her university in providing essential materials for her online classes. (Teen Vogue reached out to the school for comment and will update with any information they provide.)
As a visual art major attending a public university with no arts specialty, Cherubin found herself struggling to finish her projects on time, and said her professors seemed indifferent to what students were going with. “I think in those moments, I felt a lot of fear, and I think that kind of worsened the mental stress that I felt,” she recalls.
Some students at private universities that plan to continue remote learning in the fall are grappling with the same issues as their public school counterparts. For Jillian Piper, a rising junior at Carleton University in Ottawa, the upcoming online fall semester means managing her workload without a stable internet connection. She lives in Little Britain, a tiny rural town in Canada, and the town has limited internet connectivity.
It takes Piper at least an hour to upload an article to the website for her school’s newspaper, The Charlatan, where she is the features editor, and livestreaming classes means she has to force everyone in her house off the WiFi for hours at a time. Piper knows that she has to tell her professors that she needs extra flexibility for deadlines, though she admits she gets nervous about speaking up. “I didn’t want to seem like I was complaining,” she says. “I knew that [my professors] were adjusting a lot and had a lot on their plate.”
The inability to know the exact circumstances of students like Piper is exactly why Cal State Los Angeles assistant professor of psychology Olajide Bamishigbin wants to give students as much flexibility as possible during the upcoming online fall semester. But Bamishigbin also recognizes that those who are the most vulnerable are often the least likely to reach out for help: “There's always those students who kind of fall off and even if you reach out to them, they're still nonresponsive because there’s a thousand more things for them to worry about.”
Dickenson, whose new school will have more resources to successfully reopen in the fall, hopes that the price tag will be worth it. “Education is one of the biggest investments that a family makes," he says, "and a lot of families are losing significant value from what's already become a more and more expensive purchase.”
Want more from Teen Vogue? Check this out: Some Colleges Are Closing Permanently Because of the Coronavirus Pandemic
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