Sunny Lamb is a student at Maine College of Art who relies on her part-time job at the school’s library. She had to utilize her savings while the school was fully remote, but has been able to go back to work for the upcoming semester. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

When her college went remote last spring due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sunny Lamb suddenly lost access to her part-time job as a student worker in the campus library. She dipped into savings to help pay her living expenses.

Lamb, a junior at the Maine College of Art, also applied for and received emergency relief funds from her school to get her through the spring. She feels lucky to have gotten the help, though she knows not everyone is.

“A lot of people are taking semesters off, are taking years off,” said Lamb, who returned to her job at the library in August. “I know some people who had to stop going to school altogether because their families had their own problems because of the pandemic.”

While the pandemic has impacted everyone, college students may be particularly vulnerable due to their lower earning potential and the disruptions of campus shutdowns. Food insecurity has increased. Students learning from home have struggled with access to broadband and devices. And finding and keeping jobs has become increasingly difficult.

“College students, particularly adults, are really struggling,” said Karen Keim, director of  the Maine Educational Opportunity Center and Maine Educational Talent Search, programs that provide guidance and support to low-income, first generation and non-traditional college students around the state. “They’re trying to keep things going. They’re taking front-line jobs and those are the ones being cut. Those in waitstaff are particularly hard hit. Their earning potential has gone down and the things they took for granted, like being able to pay for and go to school, have been compromised.”

To address the nonacademic and financial needs of students, colleges both public and private have stepped up fundraising and the distribution of emergency relief dollars. Campus food pantries are seeing increased use. Some schools have instituted technology lending programs after learning students without computers at home were trying to complete coursework on their phones.

The increased needs and toll of the virus have led college leaders to worry about the prospect of students not finishing the year or re-enrolling because of the pandemic. “We do worry about them,” said Joseph Cassidy, president of Southern Maine Community College. “We do worry about their ability to stay enrolled and be successful. We’re going to keep working. We’re committed to making sure this time is important and valuable to them, but we do worry. We do have a fairly vulnerable population at this point.”

Across the country, college enrollment declined 4 percent this fall, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. While enrollment at Maine’s public university system has stayed fairly stable, the community college system saw an 8 percent decline in enrollment. The Educational Opportunity Center also saw declines in the number of adult students enrolling in college this fall, from 534 last year to 399 this year. The talent search program for high school students helped 85 seniors start college this fall compared to 147 last year.

“We’re finding a lot of students are choosing to postpone,” Keim said. “The people that are sticking with it are incredibly resilient. They are being creative with how they’re problem-solving and they’re reaching out for assistance. The campuses are being really supportive of their students and doing innovative things to keep people safe and on campus.”

At the University of Southern Maine, Dean of Students Rodney Mondor said the needs of students are the same as before COVID, there are just more in need. About a year ago the university and its foundation established a student emergency fund to help students pay for one-time unexpected nonacademic expenses, such as car repairs, dental appointments or a flight home for a family emergency. “COVID hit and the requests started going up,” Mondor said.

Since March the university has awarded grants averaging $600 to more than 230 students. Through federal coronavirus relief funds they were also able to provide students with direct aid grants last fall ranging in size from $170 to $370 and totaling more than $2.3 million.

Rent, groceries, car repairs and internet have been among the requests fulfilled. “We had a student that was working at a business that ended up shutting down due to COVID, and they lost income for three weeks,” Mondor said. “They needed $500. That’s one example. They needed some quick support and we were able to do that.”

At the Maine College of Art, a small arts-focused college in Portland with an enrollment of about 425 undergraduates, $50,000 was raised and distributed last spring for an emergency student fund. The college also recently received a $10,000 donation from TD Charitable Foundation to start a COVID-relief fund for students of color, knowing the coronavirus has disproportionately impacted communities of color in Maine and elsewhere.

“A lot of people are struggling and college is expensive, especially with student loan debt and things that will come after college for seniors specifically,” said Aminata Conteh, 22, a Maine College of Art senior studying metalsmithing and jewelry.

Conteh has had to adjust her life in several ways in response to the pandemic. Early on her mother, who is immunocompromised, came to stay with her in Portland to escape the higher case rates at her home in Brooklyn, New York. When in-person classes at the college resumed this fall, Conteh worried about bringing the virus home to her.

“It’s scary because, you know, I’m not only worrying for myself, but also worrying for my mother,” Conteh said. “I’m making sure I do all I can to wear a mask and follow regulations. It makes you really aware of other people in your community.”

On top of that there’s the looming job search Conteh and other seniors will face this spring. “There were a few internships and job opportunities I wanted to seek which now sort of seem a little untenable given the location,” she said. “They were in New York. I don’t know, to be honest. It’s a little frightening already because you leave college and you leave that safety net of the academic process and to have that on top of everything else is a little worrisome.”

Lamb, the student who applied for and received some of MECA’s emergency relief funds last spring, used the money for rent and groceries. “I didn’t lose my housing or anything like that because I was able to go into personal savings, but I did have a loss of money that would have gone towards tuition,” she said. The emergency funds helped.

“It’s always a big concern being able to pay your tuition every semester. It really comes up on you. You’re in school for three months and they say, ‘Your tuition for next semester, you can pay that now,'” said Lamb, 20. “It was really nice during the first major quarantine for students to be able to apply for money to receive help.”

At Southern Maine Community College, Cassidy has encountered many of the same concerns as on other campuses: Students have struggled to find and keep jobs; adult students who are parents are having to also administer remote learning for their children, making it harder to work and study; and the lack of in-person connections is taking a toll on mental health.

Pre-pandemic surveys have shown that 60 percent of Maine Community College System students reported living paycheck to paycheck and nearly half reported having run out of money in the previous 12 months. More than 30 percent of the students reported working at least 30 hours a week while in school, and 20 percent reported working at least 40 hours a week.

Cassidy said the college anticipated early on that finances would be a challenge for students this year. A special fund run through the president’s office has been instrumental in helping students with various needs, including food, car repairs, books and tuition. Federal coronavirus relief has also been used for direct payments.

A donation from Hannaford Supermarkets this fall helped expand the Captain’s Cupboard food pantry on campus. “For the students who have been able to take advantage of that, it’s been critical,” Cassidy said. “Food insecurity is always an issue for students and it’s been really exacerbated during this pandemic.”

With the shift to more online classes, Cassidy said the college has responded to a lack of access by establishing a technology lending program so students can continue their studies without having to make the investment in laptops and devices. USM also used its student emergency funds to purchase a small number of laptops to loan to students in need last semester, after learning some were attempting to complete coursework on their phones.

“You were looking at it and saying, ‘How was this paper written?’ and we discovered there were a number of students completing their work only on their phone and so they were writing their papers on their phones,” Mondor said. “Punctuation was missing, and capitalizations. We started following up and a lot of students, that is how they were accessing the internet and everything online, through a three-by-six (inch) screen.”

While it remains to be seen how many students will stick with their studies through the spring, Keim said the demands on colleges will continue to be great. At the same time, the need for education remains as strong as ever. “Whether it’s short-term training, certificate programs, an associate’s degree or a bachelor’s degree, we need more people to get those credentials so we can sustain a workforce here in Maine,” Keim said.

Related Headlines


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.