Coronavirus Crisis in Colleges: Students Unemployed, and Means to Support Them

College campuses are not just students’ homes where they can live and study. For many of them, it is a place where they work. These students became especially vulnerable due to the global pandemic of COVID-19. Closing the college campuses across the country does not only mean that students have to return home and study online. Those people who had their jobs on campus are now unemployed. Due to the “social distance” rules and quarantine measures, colleges closed many of their facilities. The problem is that it was where most of the students could get jobs.

COVID-19 is a severe ordeal for the higher education system of the USA. Traditional patterns and principles of college life don’t work now, and we can’t predict when things get back to business as usual. The most optimistic scenario tells about months, but it may be years. The crisis suggests that students need support more than ever. Fortunately, education institutions are aware of this, as well. We already have examples of actions to follow.

The experience of Ohio University shows that they take responsibility for the students. If they want to keep their jobs and work remotely – the university will employ them. Those students whose job positions don’t provide remote opportunities can work in other roles. College leaders ensure they would help everyone to get a new paid job.

Still, despite the evident intention to take care of such students, there are no universal solutions. Those students who were lucky to keep the jobs, note other issues. In many cases, they can’t keep the previous number of working hours, and it hurts their salaries. In many situations, remote activities are not an option at all. Colleges can’t resolve the problem now to the mutual benefit. Students, in their turn, lose means of subsistence.

There isn’t one standard protocol of actions in this situation. All colleges invent their own approaches. The problem remains: employed students depended on their salaries to live. And though colleges do pay all effort to keep them employed, they don’t have so many vacancies.

On campuses, there are plenty of different jobs for students. They assist tutors and researchers, work in dorms, dining rooms, labs, and libraries. Add the call-centers and IT support to this list, and it still won’t be full. To support daily campus lives, colleges need many workers, and the possibility to hire students for them is beneficial for both parties.

Some employees come via the “work-study” federal program – it is a famous financial support system. Many low-income students gladly join it. Institutions also hire part-time workers from the disciples. 

As the Education Department data claim, more than half of all undergraduates in colleges do some duties on campus for pay. It is the only way to proceed with the college education for most of them. With jobs, they can study and get some earnings to cover daily expenses. Now, when colleges close campuses and their facilities, students lose jobs and salaries, and college education becomes unaffordable for many of them.

The situation gets more complicated, as the quarantine cancels many businesses where students could obtain part-time jobs. People should not leave their homes to slow down the pandemic spreading across the country. It is a reasonable practice. Unfortunately, it won’t allow students to find other jobs to support themselves. Many small business owners who traditionally hired scholars are now in straitened circumstances.

The problem is evident for everyone. One of the solutions from the Office of Student Aid is that students participating in the “work-study” federal program can still get their salaries. The funds will be transferred to the colleges for supporting such students. Colleges won’t use these funds for any other aim, and it will concern only the “work-study” program participants. They will get their payments no matter if they are actually employed.   

Other universities supported this initiative. Such institutions as the New York University, the University of Northern Colorado, and Pennsylvania State University decided that they would pay the salaries to their now unemployed students. The timeframe can be different, but they will surely cover through April 2020.

Saint Louis University also claimed that their “work-study” students would get their salaries irrelevant to their employment. The students who are not members of that program will get one-time grants. It will take place if they lose their jobs on campus and can’t work remotely.

The University of North Carolina and the University of Michigan let their employees get paid time off. It concerns the students as well. And such schools as the University of Memphis and the Slippery Rock University of Pennsylvania look for the remote job opportunities for their students.

This group of American universities deserves nothing but gratitude. Unfortunately, not all schools can guarantee the same approaches. Some of them will allow their students to work remotely if there is such an option. Others, like the Massachusetts Mount Holyoke College, agreed to keep some number of job positions and provide one-time aid of $420 for the “work-study” students losing their jobs.

Undoubtedly, it is a severe blow for many students. They will be lucky if their families have stable incomes to support children for a while. But it will eliminate all the plans that students had for this spring. It concerns both the graduates and undergraduates – all families will review their budgets due to the COVID-19 outbreak. This disaster involves everyone.

Colleges that can’t support students financially claim that they will care about those who lose jobs differently. They won’t introduce any penalties if students can’t perform their duties. In most cases, the “work-study” members keep their salaries for the 10-hours per week jobs. Many other students can get some financial aid from their college.

All colleges and universities understand that they all are in the same boat now. The global pandemic forced them to take severe measures in response to withstand the challenges. And they know for sure how valuable the college job is for students. The question is how they can help and if they can do it.

The students’ salaries are not any extra resources – they are present in the colleges’ budgets. It makes it possible to keep the students paid for some time. The only necessary thing is the will of the college.

There is evidence from many universities that relates to such problems. All institutions treat the troubles individually. In the Madison University, for instance, they could provide emergency aid for those in need. The amount they issued to one of the students would let her pay the rent and food for three months. Unfortunately, no one guarantees that things change to better in three months. With all the existing college help, too many students remain in the limbo of uncertainty about their future.

The option to work remotely is proper support, but it has its pitfalls. Students who were lucky to get such an opportunity tell about increasing the workload. The online format is different – it does not provide for the stable working schedule in most cases. Hence, students work more, but their salaries remain the same.

It does not happen because of colleges being “greedy” – many of them don’t possess the funds to support all students. While the “work-study” is a federal program, the college’s own part-time employees get paid from the college resources. Closing campuses does not only mean that students have to leave them and get back home. Colleges have to refund them for the unused services – the accommodations and food.

Still, they do whatever they can to help their students to remain afloat. A college education is a kind of mutual commitment for all participants – many college officers agree with this idea. 

COVID-19 forces all the higher education system to reconsider itself. Colleges have already developed appropriate methods of online learning. And while it is hardly possible to move online for all college employees, including students, innovative approaches come to prominence.

In case when students can’t do their jobs off-campus, college supervisors consider assigning then to other duties. For instance, they suggest that students can use their working hours for self-development. It will be especially valuable when it relates to their further employment. This way, students can become much better specialists when they come back to their jobs with the end of the pandemic.

Besides, going more digital opens more prospects to them. As many institutions introduce virtual tours to replace the canceled campus visits, they can engage students in this activity. It could relate to researching, planning scripts, editing, writing an essay and technical support of such tours. It demands some IT knowledge, of course, but it will be a great motivation.

IT departments of most colleges will grow more and more during the COVID-19 crisis. As the need of digital resources and services is burning, more students can participate. We’ll see the progress in this area very soon.

As for now – many students struggle to overcome the unexpected problems brought by the coronavirus. Every college and university look for working methods to help them. There are different approaches, and their efficiency will be tested by reality very soon. For now, all we can do is to wait – and do our best together to keep afloat.