As Pandemic Poses New Strains on Low-Income Families, Campus Life Provides Students a Sense of Stability

Amherst College prides itself on offering some of the most generous financial aid packages in the country, matriculating a socioeconomically diverse student body and offering  programs, offices and spaces to support and foster community among low-income students. Leveling the socioeconomic playing field, however, has become a far more arduous task in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, which has completely upended the traditional residential college experience. 

While most college students were displeased that their academic careers and social lives were interrupted in March, the mass exodus was particularly stressful for independent students — those who identify as low-income and individuals who do not feel safe at home. For these students, who rely on Amherst’s campus for a sense of stability, the uncertainty was accompanied by insurmountable challenges These students differed drastically, however, in their responses to the change in circumstances. Some became determined to create a life for themselves off campus with friends, while others are committed to staying on campus for the duration of the 2020-2021 school year, and many combined time spent at home, time living independently and time on campus. 

When speaking to low-income students who petitioned to stay on campus, themes of financial, housing and food security came up often. “When I live[d] at home now, I ha[d] to help pay for food and contribute to my family’s rent,” said one student, hereinafter referred to as Student A; all students quoted in this article have requested to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of their circumstances. “Being able to be on campus has really helped minimize the amount of job-work I have to do because I don’t have to pay for food here, and that’s a huge privilege and blessing.” 

Student A is a junior currently living on campus and plans to return in the spring. They emphasized the benefits of being in an environment where housing and food is paid for,particularly that they can allocate their income for other purposes. “The reason why I came to Amherst was so I don’t have to live paycheck-to-paycheck, and I can establish savings for myself,” they said. 

Beyond alleviating financial hardship, residing at Amherst means that a student no longer has to  focus on supporting oneself. Living off campus as a young adult can take a large emotional and mental toll, and detract from a students’ capacity to be a student. Student B, a sophomore, is currently living on campus and feels unsafe going home. For this reason, they petitioned to stay on campus throughout winter break and next semester, as opposed to searching for off-campus housing. “Out of education, mental health and housing security, I can’t be paying attention to all three of those at once, and my mental health is happening no matter what’s going on,” said the sophomore. “I’m asking to be put in the place to be able to focus on my education and mental health, but if I can’t stay on campus, housing knocks education out of my row of things I can be focusing on.” 

While studying remotely is technically an option for anyone at Amherst, it necessitates that a student has access to a comfortable living and learning environment. A junior currently living off-campus with extended family, Student C, explained, “My family has gotten very used to me not living there, as I’m sure a lot of low-income students have experienced. It’s kind of a burden to be like, ‘Just kidding, I’m coming back home, and I gotta live with you guys,’” they said. “My parents don’t have that much space for me, and so living at my house and just not really contributing or anything — I would not feel great about it.” 

Beyond financial constraints, safety and mental health were common themes among students who cannot return home. Student B, for example, has a mental illness and began treatment through the counseling center this semester, a treatment they do not feel comfortable continuing at home. They also feel unsafe with their family due to their gender identity. “My mom and I live in one room, and that relationship is very toxic and is very detrimental to me because of transphobia and because medication negativity,” they said. 

A sophomore currently on campus, Student D, is also concerned about going home because of their queer identity and mental health. When asked about their plans for winter break, Student D said, “It all depends on the status of my relationship with my mother. I identify as gay, and she identifies as homophobic,” they said, laughing even as they acknowledged the gravity of the situation. “Last time when I got sent home, I lasted about three days before she told me I had to leave.”  

Student D is one of the many students who can’t go home and is choosing to live off campus instead of petitioning to stay at Amherst. This is, in part, because paying rent will cost them less than room and board would. “In my family, I pay for a quarter of the tuition and room and board with money that I earn by myself. I’m taking that money and I’m going to go live with my friends elsewhere and adventure,” Student D said. 

Additionally, Student D’s mental health has suffered on campus due to the restrictions on social interactions. “There’s a certain amount of isolation [on campus] that is incredibly taxing on mental health. I spend a lot more time [alone] in my room than I normally would,” they said. “Last year, my room was somewhere that people loved to go and talk and feel comfortable. It was a safe place for a lot of people. [This semester,] I was not able to create that safe space for myself and for other people, and that took a huge toll on my mental health.”

A low-income, independent student currently on campus, Student E, is also choosing to live off-campus next semester in order to preserve their mental health. “Last spring, when everyone left, I was on campus, and it was really bad for my mental health,” they said. Even though there will be students on campus next semester, Student E is a sophomore, and most of their friends will not be able to return, meaning they anticipate that they would still feel isolated should they choose to stay. Therefore, Student E is planning to rent a house with their friends off-campus. 

For students who are opting to pursue off-campus housing with their friends, one common concern was how to navigate conversations around budgeting and rent with those coming from different financial situations. Student D, for example, explained, “While my family isn’t necessarily low-income, a lot of the money I’m putting into college and into [medical] school in the future is coming from me. The people that I’m living with have a lot more money than I have to put into this, and so I’m a little worried that we’re going to get a house that’s more expensive, and then I’m going to be spending more money.” 

For Student D, choosing to live off-campus with their college friends meant disclosing information about their socioeconomic situation that they had previously chosen not to share. In a residential college such as Amherst is that, everyone lives in the same space, eats the same food, and has access to the same resources to a certain extent, despite the incredibly wide array of backgrounds. This is not to say that there are not still glaring wealth disparities at Amherst, nor to discount the role that race plays in students’ assumptions about one another’s financial status. But, when on campus, it is easier for some students to avoid difficult conversations about money and class, especially those who are not students of color. When students are unable or choose not to live on campus, this illusion of equity dissipates. 

“I don’t talk about my financial things with anyone,” said Student D. “If you look at my room, the things that I choose to invest in, it makes people think that I’m in a very different situation than I am. I don’t think I talk about my family situation very often; I don’t talk about my financial situation very often, and so I think my group only really found out about a week ago. Even my best friend didn’t know. I lived with him for three months, and he had no idea.”

Student E is in a similar situation. “My roommates are trying to get a house. I’d like to do that, but because of financial constraints, I’m not sure if I’m able to,” they said. They then explained the method their group is using to address this issue: One person in the group is acting as a sort of treasurer, and each of the other members tells the treasurer how much they can afford to pay in monthly rent, but no one else in the group is aware of how much anyone else is paying. “That anonymity was just great,” said Student E.  

For other students, affording off-campus housing was simply not feasible, as was the case for Student A. “In the perfect scenario, I would be living with my friends somewhere else in a house or something, but all my friends are [First-Generation, Low Income (FLI)], and that’s just not feasible for us,” said Student A. “I reached out to case management to see if there was any funding available [to pay for off-campus housing] and they were like, ‘No, that’s why you have a discount on tuition.’ My refund check is like a month’s worth of rent.” 

On the topic of college funding for low-income students, Student E also mentioned that much of the available emergency funds which could go towards rent will have to be used for storage, since Amherst is not providing any on campus this year. “So the problem is that, because I don’t have a house, because I’m an independent student, all the things that I brought to college are my full assets,” Student E explained. 

Paying off student loans was another issue brought up by students when discussing how finances affect their decisions about education during the pandemic. While the college does not incorporate loans into financial aid packages, 28 percent of the graduating class of 2019 did graduate with some amount of debt. Though this is quite low compared to the national average of roughly 65 percent, it is still a significant number, and those who have taken out loans are put in a particularly difficult position due to Covid. 

While many students would rather defer their enrollment and take time off than study remotely, this is not always an option for those who have taken on debt in order to fund their education. Student loans have a six month grace period, meaning that your first payment is due six months after you graduate or after you decide to take a leave. “If I leave school in January or even February, it would mean that I would have to start to pay my student loans in July or August,” said Student B. 

While Student B is ultimately happy with their decision to petition to study on campus next semester, they also have worries regarding their emotional well-being. In particular, they are concerned about mental health resources for queer students, a preexisting issue which has become more pressing due to the pandemic. “I was going into dorms before we were allowed to because there is not enough support for queer, mentally ill people on this campus, and I needed to be there for someone,” Student B said. “That’s the thing about Covid: It makes every institutional deficit about Covid, so then people realize what they are, and I do want to name that not having enough queer counselors is a Covid concern and should be treated like one.” 

Student B also highlighted another difficulty of living on campus when one is not comfortable going home: the disciplinary action for breaking a Covid guideline is the threat of removal from campus. “I should not have had to be fearing homelessness because I was trying to help a friend,” said Student B.