The Sociology of Higher Education

The COVID-19 Pandemic, Student Housing, and the University of Chicago

A Podcast by Alina Brennan, Jonah Norwitt, Hope Houston, Daniel Avila, and Weixi Hu

Disclaimer: This project was completed for pedagogical purposes for an undergraduate sociology course at University of Chicago. While we are sharing results from our mini-project with the public, it is important that readers understand these are NOT findings from a human subjects research project intended to contribute to generalizable knowledge.




This year has been met with a large amount of uncertainty for undergraduate students as they have been forced to make decisions based on constraints induced by COVID-19 pandemic, their respective universities’ responses to the health crisis, and managing personal and familial finances. The pandemic provides a unique opportunity to study how familial socioeconomic opportunity constricts or expands a student’s ability to succeed as they continue their education. In this study we ask,

“How has the pandemic, coupled with each individual’s socioeconomic status, affected a student’s decision of where to house themselves in 2020, in order to optimally succeed in school?”

SES & Student Housing at UChicago During COVID-19

by Hope Houston, Alina Brennan, Weixi Hu, Daniel Avila & Jonah Norwitt

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To provide context for our study, we conducted research into the ways that the nation has attempted to address socio-economic disparities within higher education prior to the pandemic. By utilizing a hearing from the “U.S. House Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training on Improving College Access and Completion for Low-Income and First Generation Students” (2016), we are able to glean historical problems that need to be addressed at a national level for low income and first generation students. We found guidance in defining concepts such as social and cultural capital from Dr. Jenny Stuber’s ““Class, Culture, and Participation in the Collegiate Extra-Curriculum” (2009). Through the lenses of social and cultural capital we can understand the effects they have on low-income students relative to high-income students. These concepts enlighten findings in the U.S House Subcommittee hearing as well as allow us to understand some of the qualitative data we received from our interviews.

While separating the raw data from the individual stories is important for the purpose of determining trends and conducting quantitative analysis, the qualitative changes experienced by our survey subjects provides insight into the stress, uneasiness, and insecurity experienced by an increasingly debt burdened portion of the population. Finally, concepts defined in articles such as “College Residence and Academic Performance: Who Benefits from Living on Campus?” (Turley, Ruth & Wodtke, 2010) and “The Latest Crisis: Low-Income Students Are Dropping out of College This Fall in Alarming Numbers” (2020, Long, Douglas-Gabriel) were used to directly understand the housing crisis caused by the pandemic and exacerbated by university policies. Through these various articles, studies, and opinion pieces, we are able to tie together the rising numbers of students not returning to university, the inability for universities to reliably house their returning students, the way socioeconomic class has affected who has the opportunity to return, and the social distancing required by the pandemic. 


We produced a survey that was accessed by UChicago students through a variety of UChicago class, house, resident student organization, or Greek Life Facebook pages. The survey was designed in three parts to gather generalizing information, financial background of students, and their current housing situation. “Generalized information” included information such as a student’s racial background, their current year at the University, whether or not they were enrolled for this quarter, and contact information. “Financial background” included questions regarding whether or not students were University of Chicago scholarship recipients, self described family financial lifestyle, student loan debt and expectation of debt 5 years past graduation. Finally, the “current housing situations” section identified housing expectations for the current school year prior to the pandemic, current living arrangement, which factors significantly affected their housing decision for fall quarter, and whether the university provided financial resources to the student with regards to their living arrangement.
Student Interviews

After receiving 56 survey responses, we contacted students who were open to being interviewed, especially focusing on students from low-income backgrounds. These interviews are designed to expand upon the responses received and to ask additional questions to determine how different factors affected students and their decision on where they chose to  live during fall quarter. We found that certain students from similar SES backgrounds provided insight into their personal situations that helped us look more broadly at and create generalizable social trends. We generated interview transcripts and analyzed them with an inductive coding method to find common themes and processes. Due to the pandemic changing the landscape of higher education so violently, previous literature did not provide satisfactory references on what themes to expect. We believed that finding themes from the interviews, rather than using previously-generated research, would help us get a clearer picture of the current reality.

College Bound St. Louis

Additionally we conducted an interview with Scott Baier, the CEO of College Bound St. Louis. College Bound St. Louis is an organization that helps lower income/first generation students navigate the college admissions and college experiences. By utilizing Mr. Baier’s perspectives, we can take a targeted approach to understanding the institutional deficiencies that have required outside support for low income/first generation students while grasping the change in necessary resources for underprivileged students that has occurred due to the pandemic.

Survey results were downloaded into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet. The central question “What factors significantly affected your final decision of where to live this quarter?” was split into 16 separate questions, where each respondent answered yes or no to whether a certain factor was significant in their decision making. The data was then analyzed and organized in the statistical software R. Using the data from our responses, we utilized both financial aid status and self-identified class as proxies for socioeconomic status in our study. We compared how different financial aid and class groups found different factors to be significant at different rates. We made two-variable proportion tables to compare both financial aid status and class with the housing factors to understand how students from different SES groups were affected by certain factors at varying rates.

The survey and interview data did show similarities between SES groups. Some unexpected consistencies included large majorities of every group reporting that technology availability, travel costs, fear of getting COVID, and difficulties receiving aid were all not significant factors in their housing decision. All students reported staying in their housing for significant stretches of time, feeling lonely, and having lower motivation and concentration. Additionally, there was a consensus around inadequate communication and badly timed announcements by the university. Outside of these similarities, students faced very unequal challenges around their housing.


Lower SES Students faced more challenges at home

First, lower SES students faced extensive challenges at home which higher SES students never felt: for many, their marginal costs increased as the university covered less, they had inadequate privacy and internet. These circumstances exacerbated mental health issues for some respondents, and made spring quarter much more difficult. These situations stand in stark construct to higher SES students, who had privacy, reliable internet, and financial certainty through the spring and summer. 

Challenging Housing Circumstances

Second, lower SES students were forced into challenging fall quarter housing circumstances, while higher SES students had flexibility and certainty. The university did not guarantee on-campus housing for second-years and up, and staying at home did not feel like an option. Many took on financial burdens to move off-campus in Hyde Park, which were even more stressful as they and their families had lost income due to the pandemic. Our survey also showed that Odyssey and Empower scholars stayed on-campus at much higher rates than those who did not receive financial aid, despite reporting difficulties due to on-campus policies. On the other hand, higher SES students had the finances to quickly sign off-campus leases and pay more than they expected during the summer rush for Hyde Park apartments. 

University Policy and Financial Aid

Third, the university’s policies, especially around housing, student support, and financial aid disproportionately harmed lower SES students. Academic and mental health issues were exacerbated by the inaccessibility of university resources in the shift online. Additionally, the university announced financial aid late, and did not guarantee housing: both of these actions left lower SES students in the dark and unsure of their options while they had to choose where they were living. During fall quarter, many students were okay with their current housing situation, but still faced many academic, financial, and mental health challenges due to the university’s lack of responsiveness to student needs.

Works Cited

1. Committee on Education and the Workforce. Hearing Before the Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Training Edited by Superintendent of Documents §. Serial No. 114-13 US Government Publishing Offices, (2016). Accessed October 16, 2020

2. Heather Long, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel. “The Latest Crisis: Low-Income Students Are Dropping out of College This Fall in Alarming Numbers.” The Washington Post. WP Company, September 18, 2020.

3. Turley, Ruth & Wodtke, Geoffrey. (2010). College Residence and Academic Performance: Who Benefits From Living on Campus?. Urban Education – URBAN EDUC. 45. 506-532.

4. Anthony Abraham Jack. The Privileged Poor : How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2019.

5. Stuber, J.M. (2009), Class, Culture, and Participation in the Collegiate Extra‐Curriculum. Sociological Forum, 24: 877-900.

6. Rubin, M., Denson, N., Kilpatrick, S., Matthews, K. E., Stehlik, T., & Zyngier, D. (2014). “I am Working-Class”: Subjective self-definition as a missing measure of social class and socioeconomic status in higher education research. Educational Researcher, 43, 196-200. doi: 10.3102/0013189X1452837338. 

7. Thomas, David R. “A General Inductive Approach for Analyzing Qualitative Evaluation Data.” American Journal of Evaluation 27, no. 2 (June 2006): 237–46.

8. “UChicago Empower.” College Admissions. Accessed December 4, 2020. 

9. “U.S. Department of the Treasury.” The CARES Act Provides Assistance for State, Local, and Tribal Governments | U.S. Department of the Treasury, December 1, 2020. 

10. Yi, Erika. “Themes Don’t Just Emerge — Coding the Qualitative Data.” ProjectUX (blog). Medium. July 23, 2018.

11. Zimmer, Robert. “Autumn Quarter 2020 Plans.” Email, 2020.