What Do Colleges Owe Their Most Vulnerable Students?


Since March, schools have stepped in to buy laptops and Wi-Fi hot spots for disadvantaged students, or created emergency funds to cover transportation and groceries. Davis argues that universities should go further, and view this semester as “an opportunity to prioritize these students,” she said. “You could have a cohort of three hundred high-need students come to campus and be their own pod, and you could have faculty engage with them in person.” Some institutions have adopted this model for first years, complete with seminars held in tent classrooms. Colleges “could be doing innovative things that acknowledge that high-income students are already getting these supports at home,” Davis said. “Instead, basically, you get a hotel.”

Davis’s proposals would represent an expansion of what it means for universities to serve as students’ guardians in loco parentis (“in place of a parent”), the legal doctrine that governs schools’ roles in their students’ lives. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the concept justified the control that universities exerted over students in the form of dress codes, curfews, and restrictions on their freedom of speech and assembly. Beginning in the nineteen-sixties, the meaning of in loco parentis began to shift: First, student activists won back basic rights of expression and assembly; then they argued that colleges owed them protection and care as well as freedom. Since the nineteen-eighties and nineties, the new in loco parentis has increasingly held that schools must provide a safe and equal learning environment (for example, shielding students from hazing rituals) and supply services such as mental-health counseling. In recent years, student activism around sexual assault has revealed the conflict between some schools’ promise to keep students safe from harm and their contention that drinking and partying fall outside their purview.

The dangers of the coronavirus have placed the concept of in loco parentis under new pressure: Universities feel newly compelled to patrol students’ social behavior in the name of health and safety, and many students are expecting more forms of support. Lucy Wickings, a junior at Harvard, was granted a room when the pandemic began because she is homeless. She suffered a depressive episode and experienced suicidal ideation while living on campus in the spring; she said that although she had told a professor that she was struggling with her mental health, and the professor had relayed the information to her dean, she often went weeks over the summer without hearing from any of the deans or tutors assigned to advise her. In July, she criticized the university on Twitter: “The fact that students on campus (or at least students like me) were NEVER checked in on in a formal / regular way during a PANDEMIC in which we did not have HOMES suited to take care of us, to me feels BEYOND neglectful,” she wrote. (Harvard declined to comment on any individual student’s experience, but noted that the college provides mental-health programming, most of which is virtual this year owing to safety concerns.)

When we spoke on the phone, Wickings described chafing at e-mails to the student body that advised them to cope with pandemic stress by spending time with their loved ones. “The assumption underlying everything was that people were at home with their families,” she told me. “But what about students who don’t have those things?”

Even if they have family support to fall back on, young adults have generally struggled with the isolation of the pandemic. “The transition to adulthood includes leaving home and developing community independently,” Nancy Hill, a Harvard professor and a developmental psychologist, said. Students stuck with their parents may resent the regression, but those on closed campuses are consigned to a more difficult limbo: “They’ve left home,” she said, “but they haven’t arrived.”

When I first interviewed Bella Thomas, a senior at Smith College, in early September, she felt optimistic about the coming fall. Thomas had spent six months without a stable address. She had been unable to finish the semester from the one-room house where her mother lives with her younger brother, but she had been afraid to apply for emergency campus housing that then seemed rife with unknowable risks. Instead, she crashed with an ex-boyfriend and his parents and then with an older sibling, only to land back at her mom’s house in July. Returning to Smith with roughly a hundred and ten other students was “a mostly okay situation,” she said. “I’m very grateful to be here.”

Bella Thomas, a senior at Smith College, is homesick and preoccupied with her family’s well-being.Photograph by Zhidong Zhang for The New Yorker

When we met in person three weeks later, her outlook had dimmed. Slouched on a bench by Smith’s Paradise Pond, tangling her fingers distractedly in her hair, Thomas told me that her math classes felt more difficult than ever before—she was used to solving problem sets through collaboration, but she hated Zoom so much that she couldn’t bring herself to find a virtual study group. Thomas felt deeply homesick and preoccupied with her family’s well-being. After months of searching for an alternative to living at her mother’s house, she had even considered taking the semester off to be with her.

“An advantaged student can live at home or in an apartment with friends and still have broadband Internet and complete their coursework,” Hill pointed out. “Students who are disadvantaged are being asked to trade being with their families in a distressed time for being able to complete their degree.”

Wealthy institutions such as Smith and Harvard can at least feed and shelter students who would otherwise struggle to stay in school. Elsewhere, however, many students may not be able to afford the emergency housing they’ve been offered. For most colleges, room and board are important sources of revenue; at public universities that have lost, collectively, billions in state funding since the last recession, these fees balance ransacked budgets. Public universities and community colleges, which educate the vast majority of low-income students, may be too cash-strapped to meet their material needs.

“You get less support from the government when you’re a student than when you’re not,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, the founder of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, said. For example, students aren’t eligible for many public housing programs. Goldrick-Rab argues that the best way to reduce housing insecurity on college campuses is to combat our country’s broader housing crisis, making shelter more available to all. “Students are humans first, and all humans need housing,” she said. She also advocates rewriting rules that exclude students from affordable-housing programs such as the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit. The fact that students are struggling in a time of disaster “is not primarily a moral failure on the part of colleges. It’s a moral failure on the part of our government,” she said.

Matt Bodo, a homeless student at the University of California, Los Angeles, has lined up three jobs this quarter in an effort to pay his roughly fifty-five-hundred-dollar housing bill while continuing to send money to his mother. One of those roles is as a fellow with Rise, a student advocacy organization that has pressured U.C.L.A. to devote at least a million dollars from a recent $5.5 billion capital campaign to building a shelter for homeless students. “The university seems to have this idea that if you choose not to take out loans and be in crippling student debt, then at that point it’s your choice to be homeless or housing insecure,” Bodo said.

When Bodo left his dorm last March, he finished the semester as best he could from his car, attending classes on his phone. One professor required him to download a proctoring software to monitor for cheating during a midterm, and to prove that he was sitting at a computer in an empty room. Since that wasn’t an option, Bodo dropped the course. He was permitted to return to campus over the summer, though he was behind on his rent by the time we spoke in September.

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