As a college student and a mother of two, Becca Leslie, 29, was already juggling a full load when coronavirus hit King County.
With public schools shut down, she doesn’t know how she’ll be able to study and also take care of her children when her classes resume online April 13. She’s worried about being able to pay rent and for child care for her youngest child. She fears losing money from a work-study job.
“I don’t even know if I’m going to be a student next quarter at Central,” she said. “I’m hoping I’ve done enough good in the world that good karma comes my way.”
Leslie is one of thousands of college students in Washington whose academic lives have been upended by the coronavirus pandemic. For students working their way through school, the situation is especially precarious, with many starting to worry that they might have to put their schooling on hold.
State financial aid experts are telling students there’s help if they need it, and many private donors are making generous gifts to emergency funds. But college students say they’re getting mixed messages about whether they’ll get extra aid, or if they’ll lose paychecks they counted on from work-study programs.
For some, their status as students makes them ineligible for other forms of help. Students who were laid off part-time jobs outside work study may not be eligible for state unemployment benefits if they didn’t work enough hours. And because most undergraduates are 18 or older and listed as dependents on their parents’ tax returns, they won’t be eligible for stimulus relief checks, either.
There are already early indications that students are dropping out.
This quarter, 700 students dropped out of University of Washington, double the number that failed to sign up for spring quarter during the same time last year. At Western Washington University, “we know that some students are dropping out due to COVID-19-related concerns but we don’t have a sense of how many yet,” said WWU spokesman Paul Cocke.
“A lot of students are struggling,” said Timothy Billing, a freshman at UW in Seattle. “It’s real, and scary, for a lot of us.” Billing receives the maximum amount of financial aid available from the university, but that still leaves a $6,000 gap for other expenses like food, housing and textbooks. He’s moved out of his residence hall and back with his parents in Shoreline, and he’s taken a job at a grocery store.
He’s part of a group of UW students calling on the university to take a number of steps to relieve the financial burden, including rolling back tuition and fees by 12.9% — a figure derived from the many services students won’t be able to use but still must pay for as part of the overall college bill, including a building fee and a bond fee to pay for the Intramural Activities Building, which is now closed. Students also say they’re getting a lesser education because spring quarter is being taught entirely online.
University spokesman Victor Balta said the administration hadn’t seen the proposal yet, and couldn’t speak to it. He said moving online hasn’t been cheap — the UW has had to invest in new technological capabilities. And even though classes aren’t being taught in-person, he said, “a UW education is still an excellent education and the degree or credential that our students earn will have the same value.”
The UW’s Student Senate is expected to vote on several resolutions Tuesday, including one that calls for a tuition rollback, said Alex Davidson, a UW student and member of the Student Senate. Davidson helped create a website, uwcovidresponse.com, that has called the university’s response “far from adequate.” The group surveyed 555 students, and about 40% said they held an on- or off-campus job they relied on as a source of income.
Justin Lowe, a University of Washington senior, is one of those students — he lost his Ballard restaurant job last month. He’s a first-generation college student paying his way through college; now, he’s planning to move back to his parents’ home in Mill Creek and isn’t sure how he’ll pay the spring quarter tuition bill.
“Obviously I’m not working anymore, I’ve lost my source of income,” he said. “The only real aid they’re offering is to give out loans, which doesn’t seem like a genuine response.”
Washington colleges say they are scrambling to come up with emergency funds to help students pay tuition bills, make up for lost paychecks and get the tech they need for online classes. Community and technical colleges are purchasing laptops, making Wi-Fi hotspots available or extending coverage to the parking lot, and providing drive-through access to campus food pantries. Some colleges have offered mini-grants through foundations or student government, usually for groceries.
Some students getting a paycheck through work-study jobs on campus were first told that their jobs were being dissolved, but those jobs are supposed to be converted to financial aid if the student can’t do them remotely, said Rachelle Sharpe, deputy executive director of the Washington Student Achievement Council. The council manages the statewide disbursement of financial aid.
Many colleges, universities and their foundations have also started emergency, short-term grant programs. Seattle University, the private Jesuit university on First Hill, has raised $500,000 so far.
The Seattle Colleges Foundation, a private nonprofit that supports the three Seattle community colleges, has raised more than $100,000. Washington State University, Western Washington University and UW have started raising private funds, and by Friday, UW had given emergency aid to 294 students since March 6 through a combination of university funds, private donations and federal and state aid.
Last year, in a bit of fortuitous timing, the state Legislature passed a bill that allows community college students to access $1.5 million over the next two years for emergency assistance grants.
One student government association, Associated Students of Central Washington University, would like to put all unspent student activity fees into an emergency fund, but it’s not clear if they can take that step because student fees are strictly regulated by state statute, said Kremiere Jackson, vice-president of public affairs for CWU.
Leslie, the Seattle Central College student, holds a 17-hour job as an administrative assistant at the college, and receives another seven hours a week of work-study funds. She’s been told those seven hours may be cut.
She received a bit of good news this week: Because she has a high grade-point average, she won’t be penalized for not completing a class last quarter, a choice she was forced to make because of a health issue.
She’s trying to figure out how she’ll keep studying next quarter when there’s no place to go to be away from her family, including her 7-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter. She is getting a degree in applied behavioral science, and hopes to work in social services.
“If I get it [COVID-19], I am of the high-risk population to die,” said Leslie, who suffers from asthma and seizures. “I would rather die providing and doing everything I can to make sure my family is not homeless until the moratorium order is lifted,” she said, referring to Gov. Jay Inslee’s order for everyone to stay at home.
The virus outbreak has also been hard on students enrolled in fee-based graduate programs at the UW. About half of all master’s and professional degree programs at the UW are fee-based, said state Rep. Gerry Pollet, D-Seattle, who teaches part-time in the UW’s School of Public Health. “We don’t put a penny into them, and their tuition is really high,” he said.
While many graduate students get money from the university to study — as researchers or teaching assistants, for example — students in fee-based programs are eligible only for loans. The university converted many of its graduate programs to fee-based after the last recession. The master’s in community-oriented public health practice is one such program; it’s a two-year program with a total tuition of $60,000.
For David Thomas, a first-year student in the program, a $4,000 tuition bill comes due at the end of this month, “and I don’t have $4,000 extra in my pocket.” His job at a gym is in limbo.
He’s dismayed that he’s heard nothing from the university about whether that payment can be delayed or spaced out. “It’s on the university to be proactive and communicate with students,” said Thomas, who works without pay for King County Public Health, collecting data and doing community outreach, as part of his master’s program.
Colleges are making adjustments and exceptions for different kinds of financial aid. For example, the UW will allow undergraduate students receiving certain grants and scholarships to enroll for six to 11 credits for spring quarter. Normally, those programs require that a student enroll for at least 12 credits to receive the full amount.
The university is not planning to reduce financial aid for students who move back in with their parents, and encourages those who have extra expenses or lost income to file a revision to their financial aid.
Sharpe said students dealing with financial stress should make an appointment with their advisor or financial aid office.
Washington has long been known for offering a generous program of state financial aid for low- and middle-income students, and at least for now, that hasn’t changed, Sharpe said.
She is urging students to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. “The message we’ve always had is, ‘it’s not too late to apply for student aid,’” she said.
This story has been clarified to reflect that the two-year public health master’s program with a total tuition of $60,000 is a master’s in community-oriented public health practice.