College students struggle to find housing as the coronavirus pushes them off campus

March 25, 2020, 2:00 PM UTC

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John Rovin thought he’d be studying abroad in Brazil from February until December. But on March 13, a month after the college junior arrived in São João del-Rei, the University of Texas at Austin canceled its study-abroad programs. The World Health Organization had declared coronavirus a pandemic, and less than a week later, Rovin returned to Texas. Back in Austin, he no longer had stable housing or income. 

While Rovin prepared to return to the U.S., a dispute between students and administrators erupted at Pomona College in California. The liberal arts school informed students they needed to leave campus. Students said their appeals to remain in campus housing were widely rejected. (Many have since received approval to remain.) Marie Tano, a junior, worried that returning home could endanger her immunocompromised father, and she wondered where she would live.

As COVID-19 sweeps across the country, institutions of higher education are rushing students off campus. For many students, the university served as home. Suddenly the food, housing, or income provided by educational institutions were replaced by health fears, uncertainty, and a precarious financial future. Over the past week, more than two dozen graduates and undergraduates described to Fortune how campus support mechanisms have all but disappeared, leaving a trail of bewildered students, a sense of betrayal, and questions about how to obtain basic necessities. 

Seventeen percent of U.S. students have faced a lack of safe and reliable housing due to COVID-19-related closures, according to a survey conducted by RISE, a group that advocates for free college. International students remain stuck in limbo, with many afraid to return to their home countries. Others told Fortune they lacked a stable home situation. 

Administrators “seem to have this drive to make sure everyone gets out no matter what. They’re definitely putting the institution first. This is all about risk management. It has nothing to do with taking care of us,” Hector Kilgoe, a doctoral candidate at the University of Pennsylvania, says.

UPenn told undergraduates on March 11 to leave campus, but graduate associates, who often live on campus year-round, received permission to remain in their housing. 

“All in [College Houses and Academic Services] cannot understate how much we appreciate you and your contributions to the College House system. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” the director of four-year houses and residential programs wrote in an email on March 12. Days later, the university terminated graduate associate (GA) contracts.

Graduate associates, who work for free housing and limited meal swipes for their labor, could appeal to stay on campus. If rejected, they had less than a week to leave campus. 

The university permitted Kilgoe, who has been a GA for three years, to stay on campus until June 1, though it terminated his GA access. He’s unable to enter communal kitchens, where he previously stored food, and now subsists primarily on ramen and Easy Mac. 

“We’re not sure what will happen June 1,” Kilgoe says, noting he would need to scramble for money if UPenn demanded he leave on June 1. “Some people are still trying their best to find other places to stay because it seems like people are trying to make it so that it’s miserable here.” 

College students across the country echoed Kilgoe’s concerns. They understood the complications of balancing public health guidance with student needs in a rapidly evolving situation. They noted that schools have established appeal systems for those who need to remain on campus. Some institutions have set up emergency relief funds and refunded housing costs. 

“Institutions are trying to do what they can in this uncertain time,” says Carrie Welton, senior policy consultant for the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. “Institutions have to make the tradeoffs about are we supporting employees in this time? Are we providing resources to students? It’s put even well-intended institutions in a bad position, frankly.”

Almost universally, though, the students described anxieties exacerbated by poor communication from their schools. Decisions changed daily, forcing scrambling responses from students. Information arrived through automated email addresses, inhibiting answers to follow-up questions. At larger schools, decisions filtered through more bureaucratic systems shrouded by layers of authority, preventing a streamlined appeal process. 

Even for smaller institutions, muddled communications complicated efforts for guidance. Bennington College, a 735-student institution in Southwest Vermont that requires full-time students to live on campus, told residents on March 13 to leave campus within eight days. 

Junior Katharine Ruegger, whose asthma makes her a higher risk for severe illness from COVID-19, appealed multiple times to stay on campus. On March 20, the college approved her request to remain in campus housing—but only after she sent a picture of the amount of mold in her parents’ bathroom in Indiana. 

Fearing the worst, while witnessing lockdown orders in states including California and Illinois, Ruegger drove to her friend’s cabin in Pennsylvania. 

“The school doesn’t know I left,” Ruegger said, voicing concern about what would happen if she returned to campus. “If this is not the peak of the crisis right now, if we have months to go, what happens at the end of May when the semester is over? What happens to the students who were able to remain on campus?” 

Of the universities named in this piece, only the University of Texas at Austin and Pomona College commented. The University of Texas at Austin said it was helping students with emergency housing needs through May 20, and its website listed a series of circumstances allowing students to qualify for emergency housing. This relief housing costs $1,472, including $200 in cashless payment accepted on campus and by nearby stores.

“Student Emergency Services is exploring additional resources for students whose housing needs extend beyond what is currently being offered,” a communications strategist from the University of Texas at Austin wrote, when asked if the university would provide housing into the summer if needed.

After extended pressure from undergraduate organizers, Pomona agreed to allow students who remained on campus to stay through the end of the semester. Those who departed school housing before March 20 “will receive a credit to their student account for 50% of their room fees and 50% of their board plan for the spring semester,” wrote Patricia Vest, Pomona’s associate director of news and strategic content. She noted that the school is providing other support services, including free laptops and WiFi hotspots for those who need it. 

While the other universities have also offered various emergency services, as academic institutions scramble to respond to COVID-19, alternative aid systems have emerged. Instead of tapping into the deep coffers of million- and billion-dollar endowments, students have turned to alumni.

Organizations like Believe in Students, which supports living expenses, have started fundraisers. College organizers have mobilized rapidly, crowdsourcing financial assistance, and distributed money to classmates in dire situations. Students track administration responses, share recommendations for helpful organizations, and offer advice. They connect stranded students with temporary housing and food insecure ones with meals.

These accommodations will provide resources only for a limited time. Leases end. Financial resources dwindle. And many students will be returning to their campuses, the place they viewed as home, with a tainted perception. 

“I feel like the university doesn’t really care about me as much as I used to think that they did,” says Tano, the junior from Pomona College who is temporarily staying in a stranger’s Los Angeles apartment, while discussing the housing appeal process. “They made us sell ourselves and exploit our trauma, and some students still got rejected.”

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