Heather Ainsworth/The New York Times

July 21, 2020

Students Grapple With Pandemic-Induced Financial Insecurity

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During the COVID-19 outbreak, unemployment hit a record 14.7 percent in the U.S. as mass layoffs took place and companies reduced hiring. A portion of this affected population includes students who are working their way through college.

About 11 million college students in the U.S. are employed while in college, with 75 percent working over 20 hours a week, according to studies from the National Center of Educational Statistics.

Moriah Adeghe ’21 had to leave her job at Cornell’s Flora Rose House Office. But her leave came with benefits, as Student and Campus Life compensated her based on her average weekly hours.

“We are not working remotely, but we are still getting paid which is incredibly nice,” Adeghe said.

35 percent of college students who received internship offers by April experienced cancellations because of the pandemic — a source of worry and disappointment for students who rely on them for personal and professional development. Adeghe was in the recruiting process for internships before companies began issuing hiring freezes.

Losing out on months of expected income is especially difficult for students who heavily depend on their summer internships to sustain them throughout the season and well into the school year.

“As of right now I have no idea how I am going to make money,” Adeghe said. “To go three full months with no income source is just not possible, but I don’t know where I could find a good paying job that isn’t an internship.”

Students already in financially insecure positions saw their situations worsen as they had to adapt to the unexpected order to leave campus by the end of spring break in March. Raven Schwam-Curtis ’20 recalled the different sources of stress during her move back home.

“I was really worried that flights would become much more difficult to come by or be cut off altogether, and you wouldn’t be able to get around the U.S.,” she said. “The first thing I frantically did was purchase a [plane] ticket, which is expensive to do.”

During this time, Schwam-Curtis was also financially supporting her mother and clearing out her own apartment in Ithaca.

“I had to pack up my whole life for four years in just four or five days, so that was really stressful,” she said.

The sudden transition to a more secluded lifestyle also had a negative impact on many students’ mental health, as students navigated isolation, remote learning, living at home and financial concerns.

A survey conducted by nonprofit Active Minds revealed that one in five students reported that their mental health significantly worsened during the pandemic — partly due to an increased need for financial support.

Schwam-Curtis said that the combination of financial stressors and the premature goodbyes to close friends was emotionally taxing.

“I think that was the beginning of the decline of my mental health — which for most Cornell students isn’t necessarily great to begin with,” she said.

As colleges reopen their campuses, they are now anticipating an increased need for mental health and counseling services during the fall semester. Meanwhile, some students going through troubles during the pandemic have relied on peers for emotional support.

“I’ve found it helpful to reach out to friends who are going through similar issues,” Adeghe said. Schwam-Curtis said she has had similar bonding moments with friends since the lockdown. She attributes these moments of solidarity to a “shared sense of frustration and lost youth.”

While relationships and friends became a source of comfort for students dealing with the emotional process of navigating lockdowns, students in need of financial support turned to the Cornell Access Fund. During the spring semester, the fund distributed around $400,000 to support low-income students, covering expenses related to their displacement including travel, shipping and storage.

Schwam-Curtis reached out to the Access Fund and received financial assistance to cover shipping costs and her plane ticket.

“The plane ticket, the shipping cost for all my belongings and also spending money to buy cleaning supplies and food to send home — it just became a lot,” she said. “I knew I would need some help because I come from a low-income single parent household.”

On June 19, Cornell students  joined other universities in New York State to request aid from the state and federal government for continued funding of scholarship and rent relief. Attending a private university like Cornell costs more than $60,000 per year without any financial aid.

In March, Cornell reaffirmed its financial aid commitments to current and prospective students — opting to cut costs through hiring freezes and the reduction of construction initiatives. On July 9, President Martha E. Pollack discussed the “extraordinary” measure of increasing payouts from the endowment during a virtual open forum.

“The biggest factor, by far, is the additional financial aid need of our families,” she said. “And I am fully committed to ensuring that all our families, all our students get the aid they need to complete their education.”