Inequalities on the Digital Campus

Inequalities on the Digital Campus

Class and race have shaped the realities of online learning in deep, sometimes unexpected ways.

College students in March 2020 protesting a mandatory order to evacuate campus dorms (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

When the pandemic struck last year and classes went virtual, students scrambled to adjust. A twenty-two-year-old Filipina-American psychology major at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) from a working-class background told us about the difficulties she faced attending her classes and getting her homework done. Her apartment’s unstable internet connection often booted her out of class, and she was stymied by the fact that she didn’t even have a desk at home. Because desks were sold out at many stores at the start of the pandemic, she built a wobbly makeshift one out of shelves she bought at a hardware store.

A year later, the challenges have continued because of the condition of the small apartment she shares with a roommate. Her bedroom ceiling leaks whenever it rains. Her bed was ruined after a storm, and her landlord has yet to fix the problem (the bucket she used to catch the ceiling drips was visible during our Zoom interview). Along with the “paper-thin” walls of her apartment, these various at-home distractions have made it hard to concentrate on academics, she said.

While universities are reopening for business, the rapid spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19 raises concerns about more lockdowns. Now is a good time, then, to consider the impact that the shift to virtual learning has had on the millions of college and graduate students forced to study—either partly or wholly—at home. Through research conducted at VCU in Richmond, we found that class and race shaped the realities of online learning in 2020 and 2021 in deep, sometimes unexpected ways that largely revolved around the family resources available to students.

Affluent and white students drew upon financial and material sources of support from their parents, partners, and employers to help mitigate the hurdles to learning posed by the pandemic. Our interviews with less-advantaged students, by contrast, made clear just how much they typically rely on the physical infrastructure of the university: quiet places to study, fast and reliable internet connections, comfortable desks. In other words, the pandemic highlighted not only the wildly unequal resources available to students learning at home, but also just how much university campuses matter in reining in those inequalities—creating, through their shared spaces, a more level playing field for students of all backgrounds.

To understand how students were adjusting to socially distanced learning, Alice interviewed thirty undergraduate and graduate students at VCU. A state university, VCU enrolled 22,277 undergraduates and 5,554 graduate students in 2020–2021. About half of its undergraduates are people of color, and a third receive federal Pell Grant support—making it an ideal campus for observing how working-class students coped with the impact of the pandemic. When lockdowns began last year, VCU shut down its campus, but it stayed open the following school year through a mix of virtual and in-person classes, with about half of classes wholly or partially online in the fall of 2020.

Even before the pandemic, there was heated debate over whether the growing popularity of online learning would heighten or lessen higher education’s age-old inequalities. Advocates argued that virtual instruction would make it easier for some students—particularly working learners—to take classes. Critics worried about the so-called digital divide: high-speed internet access is costly (and, in some rural areas, nonexistent), meaning that students from more privileged families are better able to participate online and take advantage of the latest learning technologies.

Alice’s in-depth interviews with students illustrated just how much economic insecurity—and the absence of a familial financial backstop—makes it difficult to study virtually. One student Alice talked to was a twenty-nine-year-old Latina senior—a first-generation college student from a working-class background. Even before the pandemic, her need to pay her way through school meant she worked two part-time jobs, limiting the time she had to study. Once classes went online, she also started dealing with constant tech problems. Her older laptop couldn’t keep up with the demands of Zoom, and during class it would crash and fill with the dreaded blue Windows error screen.

“It’s been really stressful,” she said. “Everything’s done online, you know? I’ve been kicked out of my classes because my computer’s having issues.” To make matters worse, her internet service is painfully slow. Since she and her partner live in an apartment where internet is included as part of the rent, they can’t upgrade it on their own.

According to a national survey of undergraduates conducted last year by the educational nonprofit Digital Promise, both students of color and students from low-income households were much more likely to experience computer issues that interfered with their course participation. For instance, 20 percent of students from households earning under $50,000 a year had internet connectivity problems often or very often, compared to 12 percent of those from households with incomes of $100,000 or more. Twice as many Hispanic students ran into such problems as their white peers (23 versus 12 percent), with Black students falling between those groups at 17 percent. 

When policymakers raise concerns about online learning, they often highlight the digital divide between urban and rural areas. Yet the Digital Promise survey found that rural students experienced internet connectivity issues at about the same rate as their urban and suburban counterparts. Instead, the relevant divides were those of class and race, with lower-income students and students of color much less able to avoid computer problems, let alone find quiet places to study.

Ideally, universities narrow these preexisting divides among students. But as our interviews show, this equalizing effect stopped once classes went virtual. At the beginning of the pandemic, a twenty-one-year-old Black mass communications major was living in a VCU dorm. When the administration told students to vacate, he had to move a couple of hours away to Chesapeake, Virginia, to live with his cousin, her husband, and her two kids, both around his age. The household was “very Wi-Fi heavy,” he said, because everyone was working or studying from home. “It was so bad. . . . It was a very slow connection, [the screen] was always pixelated.” The internet was so laggy that it caused him to be late logging into Zoom for his classes on multiple occasions. “It’ll just kick me out of meetings, and I’m like, ‘OK, cool, done with the day.’”

None of our interviewees from well-off backgrounds had any major issues with accessing the internet, using their computers, or finding a quiet space to do their work while they were studying at home. And when minor problems did arise, students could deal with them easily by turning to parents for help. A twenty-one-year-old white psychology major from an upper-middle-class background, for example, told Alice that his parents stepped up to provide additional assistance once he started attending school virtually. “They definitely helped provide me with the internet, which I would say is crucial,” said the senior, who lives with his sister and another roommate in a house they rent in an upscale neighborhood near VCU. What’s more, because he is diabetic and they were concerned about his health, his parents (who make around $200,000 a year) took it upon themselves at the beginning of the pandemic to buy groceries for him, even wiping down the bags afterward. “They went a little bit above and beyond to make sure that I was able to attend my classes,” he said.

Political scientist Robert D. Putnam explains how affluent parents’ financial and professional resources act as “social air bags” for their children, shielding them and compensating for any occasional difficulties they might encounter in academics or other aspects of their lives. We could see this crisis-cushioning at work during the pandemic: more advantaged students were often able to study from their parents’ spacious homes, popping into their class Zooms from comfortable workstations equipped with fast and reliable internet connections. But the assistance gifted to these students did not come only from their parents. Alice talked to several working-class students (all of them white) whose middle-class partners’ incomes ensured that they, too, could work from well-maintained homes with fast internet.

Several middle-class students reported easily borrowing electronic devices like laptops and printers from their professional employers to use for their schoolwork after hours. Students from a working-class background tended to work low-wage service jobs at restaurants and retail stores; their employers were unable or unwilling to hand out free technology. Their precarious employment during the lockdown was itself a source of stress, and their parents were often unable to step in to provide financial assistance. Working-class students of color, in particular, had multiple hurdles piled onto them. The Filipina-American psychology student worked as a hostess at a Chinese restaurant at the start of the pandemic but had to start walking a half hour there and back after her car was totaled in an accident. Her boss eventually stopped giving her hours but didn’t fire her, which she said discouraged her from filing for unemployment benefits (“someone had told me I might accidentally do something fraudulent”). The Latina student could not turn to her single mother or her sisters for help with her technology issues, given that they, too, were financially strapped. Eventually, she appealed to another purportedly equalizing institution—the federal government—for a CARES Act grant to buy a new laptop. Through that government assistance, parceled out through VCU, she was able to purchase one.

Students of color struggled during the pandemic for two other reasons, interviews showed: the racial reckoning that occurred during the early months of the pandemic, and the wave of anti-Asian violence sparked by the Chinese origins of the pandemic. These national news events tended to be a source of intense stress for African Americans and Asian Americans in particular—two communities that also tend to face mental health issues and treatment with more stigma attached to them, according to research. “Once the George Floyd thing happened . . . I started having a lot of panic attacks,” said a twenty-five-year-old Black student. “It scared the hell out of me. I’d never experienced anything like that before in my entire life.”

A twenty-two-year-old student of Filipina and Chinese descent said that she and her other Asian friends were more concerned about “racist attacks” than they were about the coronavirus at the start of the pandemic. She has felt depressed during the pandemic (“corona sad,” as she put it), a feeling that the country’s grim racial outlook has only worsened.

Students of color—whose families tended to be more resistant to the idea of seeking out mental health treatment—also happened to be the hardest hit by the background stresses of the pandemic. “My parents are still kind of iffy about it, and they’re not really willing to give me the financial resources to seek help,” said a nineteen-year-old Indian-American student who wanted to seek treatment for her anxiety.

From mental healthcare to internet access, the unequal experience of learning during the pandemic reminds us of the important role institutions like universities and governments can—and must—play in compensating for the stark divides in students’ home lives. By providing amenities like high-speed internet, quiet study spaces, and on-campus healthcare to all their students, universities ensure that household inequalities do not spill over into the presumably meritocratic competition of their academic life.

As more and more instruction goes online (a trend that long predates the pandemic), it will be crucial for virtual academies to cultivate online analogs to the huge investments universities have made in physical infrastructure in order to give students of varied backgrounds educations of comparable quality.

Higher education has been long billed as a great equalizer. But without dedicated efforts to address the nontraditional learning conditions imposed by the pandemic, universities may continue to reproduce the divides they are supposed to diminish.

Alice Quach is a sociologist based in Virginia Beach with degrees from the University of Virginia and Virginia Commonwealth University.

Victor Tan Chen is an associate professor of sociology at Virginia Commonwealth University whose most recent book is Organizational Imaginaries: Tempering Capitalism and Tending to Communities through Cooperatives and Collectivist Democracy.

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