No Home, No Wi-Fi: Pandemic Adds to Strain on Poor College Students

No Home, No Wi-Fi: Pandemic Adds to Strain on Poor College Students

Michelle Macario was struggling to follow online classes through the tiny screen of her smartphone. She had no laptop and no Wi-Fi at home, and the library where she normally studied at her community college in Los Angeles was closed. So two weeks into the coronavirus shutdown in the spring, she dropped all of her courses to avoid failing.

Things aren’t much better this semester. Ms. Macario, 18, who is majoring in psychology at Santa Monica College, left the crowded apartment in Los Angeles that she shared with her immigrant family from Guatemala and has been crashing with her sister and friends. But the Wi-Fi is unreliable, she’s living too far away from her hospital internship, and she toils to tap out exams and homework on her phone.

“Between the internet, Covid and couch surfing, I haven’t been able to do a good semester,” Ms. Macario said.

Trapped between the financial hardships of the pandemic and the technological hurdles of online learning,

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Financial aid in the United States had already been stretched thin by the rising costs of tuition, room and board. At their maximum, need-based federal Pell grants cover just 28 percent of the total cost of attending a public college today, compared with more than half of that cost in the 1980s. State aid, while recovering somewhat since the Great Recession, still falls short of need, and state budgets have been further drained by the health crisis.

The CARES Act, passed by Congress in March, provided about $14 billion for higher education, with about half earmarked for students. But there were limits on who could receive it, and college students were ineligible for the $1,200 stimulus check that went to taxpayers.

Congressional negotiations over additional aid have been in turmoil over the past week. Mr. Trump announced on Tuesday that he was ending talks with Democrats until after the elections, then sought to restart discussions with a $1.8 trillion offer that members of his own party oppose. That has left students turning to their colleges for extra financial support.

In a survey of some 300 college and university presidents conducted by the American Council on Education, a trade group, about 80 percent reported that they had provided more financial aid for the fall term. But few institutions have endowments large enough to cover significant increases, and many that do have traditionally been unwilling to cover living expenses.

“The whole system right now is built around the idea that the main cost is supposed to be the tuition, even though it’s not,” said Ms. Goldrick-Rab of the Hope Center.

Before the pandemic, Matt Bodo, 22, was homeless for two years while taking community college classes and working full-time as a waiter and a valet in Northern California. He was occasionally able to sleep on a friend’s sofa, but he mostly lived in his car, a rusted old Ford Mustang.

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Credit…Christian Monterrosa for The New York Times

For internet access, he would spend as much time as possible on campus, where he could also shower.

Last year, Mr. Bodo transferred to the University of California, Los Angeles, where he is majoring in linguistics and psychology, and settled into a shared dorm room. But he could not afford the cost for housing after the pandemic hit and the school required students to pay more for single rooms.

His younger sister, a community college student in the Bay Area, lost her housing in early April, and he returned to help her. Few of his quarantining friends were willing to take them in, so soon they were both sleeping in their cars.

This term has been somewhat better; nonprofit groups have helped him afford a U.C.L.A. dorm. But even with financial assistance and three jobs, Mr. Bodo is struggling to pay for classes and to support his sister, who is still couch surfing and needs money for community college.

If he can’t make ends meet, Mr. Bodo said, he will become homeless again in order to cover her rent.

“She’s my little sister, and I hate to see her struggle,” he said. “In my heart, I put her before me, even if that means I’m living in my car.”

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