The Brutalization of College Students During Lockdowns


Jack Nicastro AND Phillip W. Magness -

On March 10, 2020 at 7:16 p.m. the University of Dayton tweeted that all dormitories on campus would be closed less than 24 hours later in order to protect “the health and safety of our campus community.” It was one of hundreds of colleges and universities that rushed to clear out its campus in mid-March over fears of an impending coronavirus outbreak.

Most of these decisions were announced at a moment’s notice, leaving only a matter of days or hours for students to comply and make last-minute travel and housing arrangements in the face of impending eviction.

Dayton’s order proved particularly egregious. The college displayed little concern for the health and safety of its community members who had no mode of transportation or financial means to leave the campus with virtually zero notice. Its 11,271 student population had to vacate immediately. When a group of students took to the streets around campus to protest the hasty and chaotic decision, they found themselves accosted with pepper spray pellets by police officers who broke up the protest at 2:15AM.

Now imagine if an apartment owner or rental house landlord behaved similarly toward paying residents. They would be denounced as slumlords for throwing people out into the street without recourse. They might also run afoul of Ohio eviction law, which states that a landlord must issue a minimum three-day notice prior to evicting tenants. Similar laws exist in almost every single state. Yet when American higher ed cleared out its campus residences last spring, it did so under the moralizing language of “acting responsibly” to contain the virus.

Similar instances of college students being hung out to dry by the hasty decisions of college administrators occurred all across the United States in the week leading up to the lockdowns. Georgetown professor Bryan Alexander estimated upwards of 14 million students were affected by the decisions. USA Today issued a headline as early as March 11, 2020 stating “[m]ore than 100 colleges cancel in-person classes and move online.” In explaining to NPR the rapid adoption of social-distancing measures by American universities, Alexander noted that “[h]igher education has a very strong herd mentality.”

While acting out of an abundance of caution for the sake of public health, institutions of higher learning paid little attention to the unintended consequences of their actions. In addition to causing chaos for students, the abrupt dormitory closures likely had the opposite effect of their expressed intentions. Despite these measures being adopted to stem the pandemic spread, the coronavirus was already here and already widely prevalent in locales such as New York City and Boston by mid-March.

Hastily shutting down campuses in these areas therefore likely increased the spread of the virus as hundreds of thousands of out-of-state students dispersed from the outbreak hotspots of the Northeast to homes with elderly family members and other locales across the country. While we will likely never know exactly how many of these students were infected at the time, it’s a probabilistic certainty that some of them carried the virus with them.

Digging into the Data

The geographical concentration of colleges indicate the impact of higher ed closure as a superspreader event. Of approximately 4,324 colleges and universities in the United States, 524 are located in the states of New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut – the regional focus of the first wave. If we add other early hotspot states of Pennsylvania and Michigan, we get 879 institutions, or roughly 20% of all colleges and universities in the United States.

In these same states there were roughly 3.7 million students enrolled in institutions at the time of the Covid-19 outbreak. Extrapolating from 2017 data on the total fall enrollment in degree-granting postsecondary institutions from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), as well as from 2018 data on the percent of out-of-state first-time degree-seeking undergraduate students from the NCES, we estimate that over 900,000 students in the northeastern region (plus Pennsylvania and Michigan) permanently resided in other jurisdictions.

The data from the NCES on total fall enrollment includes all postsecondary institutions, not just undergraduate programs, whereas their data on out-of-state students limits itself to describing only undergraduate enrollment. Our analysis assumes that the number of students in Title IX institutions is relatively stable between 2017 and 2020; that out-of-state attendance at Title IX institutions is roughly equivalent between undergraduate and graduate schools; and that out-of-state enrollment patterns for undergraduate students did not vary significantly between 2018 and 2020.


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