Low-Income Students Are 55% More Likely to Delay Graduation Due to COVID

The lack of resources and unstable environments that low-income students typically face have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 shift to online schooling and the high unemployment rate. 

The National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) found that “lower-income students are 55% more likely to delay graduation due to COVID-19 and are 41% more likely to report that COVID-19 impacted their major choice.” 

Existing barriers become larger hurdles 

As many universities send students home and move classes online, the barriers to graduation that students face are magnified. Without a global pandemic, the latest government data shows that only 14% of low-income students graduate within eight years of enrolling. Now that campuses are closing, it can be hard for these students to balance work, bills, family responsibilities — and find an ideal environment to study.

“Lower-income students may not have the home situation that enables peaceful and supportive online learning. That makes course progression and success difficult,” explains Karen Gross, an author, educator and former Senior Policy Advisor with the US Department of Education.  

Sufficient internet access and personal computers may also be hard to come by — about 35% of households with school-aged children and an annual income of $30,000 or less, do not have high-speed internet at home. The sudden shift to remote learning can mean low-income students have to share devices with family members, are unable to maintain bandwidth for Zoom classrooms or have to complete essays on cell phones. 

Gross also points out the social and learning-style benefits of on-campus education that can be vital to a first-generation student’s success. “If low-income students want and need academic support and appreciate the connection with academic role models in school, then these are difficult to garner in an online environment”  

The impact of COVID-related job loss and family income

Some students may delay graduation because they’ve lost the income that pays for school or they need to help cover bills at home. According to the NBER study, “The Impact of Covid-19 on Student Experiences and Expectations,” working students were hit by a 31% decrease in wages, coupled with a 37% drop in weekly hours worked. 

Moreover, almost 40% of students lost a job, internship, or a job offer, and 61% reported having a family member experience an income reduction. These financial disruptions force students — are more likely working to pay for college —  to choose to prioritize employment over school. 

“Low-income students demonstrate a high degree of financial fragility, so even small income losses can disrupt their education. The number one reason why students drop out of college is money, followed by school, home and work conflicts,” says Mark Kantrowitz, VP of Research at Savingforcollege.com

Those conflicts are at an all-time high as the pandemic ushers in a recession and over 30 million Americans face unemployment. 

“Low-income students may be sensing and experiencing family dysfunction due to COVID. There could be job losses with devastating financial consequences; there could be food scarcity; there could be essential workers in the family which has been and continues to be stressful — in a myriad of ways,” adds Gross. 

COVID-19 resources for low-income students 

We recommend students check with their college first for any emergency financial aid and specific COVID-19 resources they may be offering at this time.

Check for local organizations that may be donating tools like laptops or internet routers. Research the internet providers that service your area for options like low-income programs for discounted internet service, that they’ve boosted specifically for students.

The CARES Act also has a few emergency funds and grants for low-income students who need higher education assistance. The university financial aid office can direct you to resources that apply to your situation and should be able to help you put in an application. 

Karen Gross is an author and educator, as well as an advisor and consultant to nonprofit schools, organizations, and governments; instructor of continuing education at Rutgers Graduate School of Social Work; visiting professor at Bennington College; former president of Southern Vermont College; former senior policy advisor to the United States Department of Education.

Mark Kantrowitz
Mark Kantrowitz


Mark Kantrowitz is Publisher and VP of Research for Savingforcollege.com. Mark is an expert on student financial aid, the FAFSA, scholarships and student loans. Mark has written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Reuters, MarketWatch, Huffington Post, U.S. News & World Report, Money Magazine, Forbes, Newsweek and Time Magazine. He’s the author of five bestselling books about scholarships and financial aid and holds seven patents.

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Danika Miller

Personal Finance Reporter

Danika Miller is a personal finance reporter at The Simple Dollar who specializes in banking, savings, budgeting, home insurance, and auto insurance. Her reporting has also been featured at CreditCards.com, Reviews.com, and elsewhere.

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  • Andrea Perez
    Andrea Perez
    Personal Finance Editor

    Andrea Perez is an editor at The Simple Dollar who leads our news and opinion coverage. She specializes in financial policy, banking, and investing.