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How COVID-19 Exacerbated Inequities in Higher Education

Updated: Jul 25, 2023

The COVID-19 Pandemic has brought about numerous challenges for students of color that have hindered academic progress.

Photo by Greg Baker

It’s been over a year since the COVID-19 pandemic brought life to a halt in the United States. In the blink of an eye, colleges and universities across the country shut down and forced students home, with online classes to constitute the remainder of their semester.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Leadership Brainery launched a Student Relief Fund to assist underserved students with expenses such as books, food, housing, internet, and more. Over 130 grants were distributed to students, 72% of whom are first-generation college students. COVID-19 hit certain populations harder than most, leading to many students encountering hardships that made living situations difficult. The Student Relief Fund helped these students with expenses to stay safe and continue to learn during the pandemic.

At a surface level, COVID-19 and higher education simply means virtual classes and studying at home. However, the domino effect for many students spans beyond simply taking classes online. Many societal issues including inequalities in housing, food access, and income level have all been magnified during the pandemic. International students are faced with the challenge of attending school in completely different time zones. Not to mention increased racism and xenophobia in a time where race and social justice have become leading topics of change and conversation.

COVID-Driven Racism

One of the big consequences of the pandemic has been travel restrictions for various countries across the world. Former President Donald Trump issued a travel ban from China on January 31, 2020. However, the ban was only on Chinese foreign nationals, not U.S. citizens who happened to be residing in China at the time. While a travel ban from China sounded like a good strategy to mitigate the spread of the then-new coronavirus, preventing only foreign nationals from entering the country, while allowing U.S. citizens and permanent residents to enter despite being equally at risk of being infected, raises some questions of potential racism and xenophobia. The origin of COVID-19 from China has caused many instances of racially motivated attacks on Asian-Americans. Phrases like “Kung Flu” and “China Virus” only accelerated the bias and hate towards Asian populations.

Travel Restrictions

With the pandemic raging on into September 2020, the start of the 2020-2021 academic year brought about numerous challenges for schools and students alike. Many institutions shifted to virtual classes, with no in-person components. Other schools allowed students to return to campus, but with new and strict health and safety protocols. While many schools, such as Tufts University, allowed students to return to campus, international students were left on the outside looking in. With 33.7% of international students in the United States coming from China, many schools saw a drastically reduced number of students on campus as a result of the travel bans that former President Trump had put in place.

Socioeconomic Disparities

The COVID-19 pandemic also magnified many existing socio-economic issues within our country. Income inequality has continued to be a major issue in the United States, and COVID-19 made the situation much worse for many populations, mainly the Black population. With many students already struggling to pay for college, job losses as a result of the pandemic have only reduced household income, forcing students to find more ways to pay for college, and even raising questions on whether they will be able to finish. Not only does this put a strain on students, but as University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education professor Camille Charles puts it, “[COVID-19] puts a strain on colleges and universities who want to create better access for lower-income applicants.” Furthermore, during the pandemic, “fifty-six percent of Black and Hispanic students have reported that COVID-19 is very likely or likely to force them out of school, compared to 44 percent of whites”. That gap is shocking, and it only goes to show how much harder it is for students of diverse backgrounds to get a college degree, especially in times of crisis like the pandemic. Income inequality also serves as a driver for a lack of access to stable internet. While some schools provided laptops, tablets, and other technological resources for students to take online classes, many low-income students lacked access to stable Wi-Fi to allow them to even use their devices. Nearly 1 in 4 students applying for Leadership Brainery student relief funds did not have adequate access to technology. With many schools choosing to remain online in 2020-2021, it’s fair to wonder whether colleges thought about the many issues facing these students when drafting plans for the Fall 2020 semester.

Economic inequality isn’t the only issue many students have to worry about during COVID, food and housing insecurity has also become a pressing issue in light of the pandemic. Many students from diverse populations lack the same stability in housing and food as their white counterparts. When COVID-19 first forced students off campus, a question was raised about how schools will tend to their students who may not have a home to go back to, or won’t have food to eat. Many students relied on campus dining halls for a complete meal, and residence halls for stable housing. Coinciding with stay-at-home orders put in place in Spring 2020, many spikes in domestic violence and child abuse were seen. College students are at just as much of a risk for abuse than other populations, especially if they identify as LGBTQ+ and are coming from a household that may not be as accepting as a college environment might. Out of the 2111 students who applied for Leadership Brainery student relief funds, 22% (482 students) indicated that they are homeless or in temporary housing. Out of those 482 people, 36% of them identified as LGBTQ+. As a result of being sent home, these students now go back to a situation where they don’t have a safe place to sleep, get a meal, or even be themselves. Institutions failed to, or overlooked these circumstances, highlighting the disparities among higher education students of diverse backgrounds.

“I worry about them because of rent, and I worry about them because of food. And I worry about them because of the medical issues that their families have.”

Greater Risk of Infection

Many diverse populations are also at a greater risk of infection and serious complications as a result of COVID-19, but given the history of medical care for low-income and diverse populations, these people are less likely to seek medical care, which can result in devastating consequences. Diverse students now have a lot more on their plate than just school, and that is a serious cause for concern. As Jodi Bailey, the Associate Vice President of Student Affairs at New Jersey City University puts it, “I worry about them because of rent, and I worry about them because of food. And I worry about them because of the medical issues that their families have.”

Low-income and diverse students have seen an increase in the challenges they must face in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the country, and schools alike, have made significant progress in the fight against COVID-19 and the push to get students back on campus, many students are still left unaccounted for, and that’s simply not acceptable.


About Leadership Brainery

Leadership Brainery is a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt pipeline organization closing opportunity and wealth gaps by increasing the number of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) and first-generation college students being accepted and enrolled in postgraduate education programs and recruited into high-wage careers. We believe that with greater resources and access to inclusive networks and advanced education, underserved communities can leverage higher-wage careers to establish financial stability and reinvest in their communities to create generational prosperity, thus closing wealth and opportunity gaps. To learn more, visit

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