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College students at a loss for work hours, tuition costs and institutions make adjustments

The coronavirus pandemic economy has been particularly hard

The coronavirus pandemic economy has been particularly hard on retail and restaurant jobs favored by college students to help them make ends meet. SUNY Old Westbury student Johanna Metz, of Mastic, explains how she is getting by after losing hours at her retail job. Credit: Morgan Campbell

When the coronavirus pandemic hit last spring, Johanna Metz lost hours at her retail job and spent a month on unemployment before finding full-time work at a brand-name outlet store in Riverhead. She needed the work hours to pay expenses while attending SUNY Old Westbury.

Now, the 21-year-old junior psychology major from Mastic faces cuts in her work schedule again, as the pandemic has been particularly hard on the retail and restaurant sectors favored by college students to help make ends meet.

"I’ll only be working 15 hours a week, which is terrible," Metz said. "It’s just getting slower and slower — because of COVID, people don’t want to come out. They have to cut everyone’s hours. … It’s pretty rough, I’m not going to lie to you."

With the arrival of spring semester bills, universities and community colleges said they are seeing an even greater need for financial assistance. Many students, besides their own job woes, report a loss in financial support from family members also beset with employment and business setbacks.

Schools said they have been responding by disbursing millions in federal emergency aid, grants from their own hardship and emergency funds, and putting in place more flexible tuition and fee payment schedules.

"We’ve never, ever had these levels of requests for funds, and it’s literally horrible stories," said Sylvia Diaz, executive director of the Suffolk County Community College Foundation, an entity that gives charitable donations to students. She said the foundation’s relief funds typically get 30 or 40 requests in a calendar year compared to the hundreds that came in during the pandemic.

Of the 26,016 students enrolled at Suffolk County Community College for spring and fall 2020, 11,287, or 43%, received grants from the federal CARES Act, Diaz said. The emergency aid program was created last spring to assist students with pandemic-related costs.

In addition to the federal aid, Diaz said, more than 500 students were awarded grants from the college’s COVID-19 Relief Fund and another hardship fund.

"Of those, 444 were in need of assistance due to a job loss," she said. "One hundred and fifty-five of them had a COVID diagnosis themselves and or in their household."

Suffolk County Community College spokesman Drew Biondo said a high number of CARES Act applicants "indicated loss of income. … Pre-pandemic, it was not uncommon for our students to hold down two or three jobs."

A lot of those jobs were in the retail and restaurant sectors. Initial unemployment claims filed last March through January were more than 700% higher in accommodations and food services, and 824% higher in retail trade, compared to the same period a year earlier, according to state labor department figures.

During that time, restaurants were forced to stop or severely limit indoor dining to limit spread of infection. Some stores also limited the number of people allowed to enter, while movie houses and theaters were forced to close for months.

"Students who appealed ​for more aid because of personal loss of work indicated working in movie theaters, grocery stores, pharmacies, babysitting, and restaurants," said Marcelle Hicks, senior director of Undergraduate Admissions at New York Institute of Technology in Old Westbury.

'I’m surviving, trying to figure it out'

Suffolk County Community College student Santos Sorto, 34, a mother of four, works as a teaching assistant at a Head Start program. The pandemic forced her to stop cooking and delivering meals to factory workers for extra income, but hardship aid from the college allowed her to continue her studies, she said, and "they still help me with a little bit, but I’d like to work."

"It’s a struggle. I’m surviving, trying to figure it out," Sorto said.

Adelphi University in Garden City, where almost all of its nearly 8,000 students get some form of financial aid, is helping through fundraising, federal funds and flexibility in tuition payments, said Kristen Capezza, vice president of Enrollment Management and University Communications. And it has preserved and expanded on-campus jobs to help students defray expenses.

"We allowed them to register for the fall even if they had outstanding balances that would normally prevent them from registering," Capezza said. "We also put in place additional payment plan options giving additional time to settle account balances, and waived late fees on tuition payments through the middle of fall."

One donor "contributed several hundred thousand dollars to help with outstanding balances to pay them off so [students] could enter as seniors in the fall," Capezza said. She said the university advised students on how to maximize their financial aid packages, including by applying for grants. Once guidelines are in place, the university expects to disburse $2.6 million in CRRSA Act federal emergency aid, the funding program that succeeded the CARES Act, she said.

"The need has not gone away — students who have received funds continue to seek assistance," said Usama Shaikh, vice president for Student Affairs and chief diversity officer at SUNY Old Westbury. Job categories long occupied by students "are the ones that continue to be less and less available for our students."

SUNY Old Westbury had distributed $2.75 million in CARES Act funds as of Dec. 31 to 3,252 students for COVID-related expenses and impacts, Shaikh said. It worked with students to "identify resources for them in the community, on campus, and federal and state financial aid," and permitted tuition payments plans for those unable to pay a lump sum at the start of a semester, he said.

The school’s fundraising charitable foundation has disbursed nearly $100,000 since March and again is preparing to disburse a similar amount, he said.

"For us, it’s been a bit of a tsunami," Shaikh said. "Prior to COVID, students reaching out to us for these resources was a trickle. It’s been a complete 180 between students not reaching out to us to students saying, ‘I have nowhere else to turn to.’ They’ve exhausted the usual places they’ve turned to for support, including family members who are now hurting and no longer have the means to support that student."

Not all receive hardship aid

Not every student who applies for hardship aid is approved. Metz said she applied three times unsuccessfully but will try again. "I need the aid when my hours are down," she said.

New York Institute of Technology’s Karen Vahey, dean of Admissions and Financial Aid, said she’s seen a 27% increase in requests for undergraduate aid for 2021-22 and a 4% rise for graduate student aid requests.

"For fall 2020, we saw a 15% increase in requests for additional aid and assistance, and much of this increase can be attributed to the pandemic," she said. "We have already begun to process requests for additional aid. This is earlier in the cycle than is typical and before many of our financial aid packages have been mailed."

The economy, where unemployment claims rose 10% on Long Island during the last week in January despite a decline nationwide, also is compounding students' fears about how to finance their education.

"One important trend we're seeing is that students are hesitant to take out loans, given the economic uncertainty of the job market," said Marguerite Lane, assistant vice president of Enrollment Management at Molloy College. She noted the school chose not to raise tuition, and offers "numerous career-focused programs" to help students.

Despite the pandemic, Ronald Wood, of Port Jefferson Station, remains optimistic. The 19-year-old is as hard-pressed as many of his fellow students at Suffolk County Community College, where he is preparing for a nursing degree. His mother, a nurse, was out of work for a few months, and he received hardship aid from the school to meet expenses.

Wood most recently worked as a DoorDash deliveryman, but is out of work until his parents can help him pay for car repairs, he said. In January, he had to quarantine with a case of COVID-19. But he has a new plan, sparked by the pleasure he got cheering anxious customers with a bit of conversation as a supermarket cashier last spring.

"I actually enjoyed it so much, I’m going to try to open up something like a farmers market stand," he said.

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