Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that COVID infection rates are higher in poorer communities.
But is that true for college communities, too? Sophia Zacher ’21 and Lewis Davis expected the answer to be yes.
“Without question the most surprising thing we found was that COVID infection rates were higher at richer schools,” Davis said. “That completely turned our original thinking on its head.”
Zacher and Davis, along with Stephen Schmidt, analyzed data collected by The New York Times from 1,069 U.S. schools during the 2020-21 academic year. They combined this with additional data (like tuition rate, enrollment and endowment per student) from IPEDS, a major source of comparative information on U.S. educational institutions.
Their analysis showed greater infection rates at colleges and universities with higher endowments per student and higher tuition— the wealthier schools. It also showed more illness at more selective schools.
Zacher and Davis also discovered that politics can’t easily be separated from case numbers.
“Infection rates were higher by a third at public institutions in states with Republican governors relative to similar institutions in states with Democratic governors,” Davis said. “That result is either totally shocking, given that viruses are not partisan actors, or totally commonplace since nearly everything in our society appears to be politicized.”
So why don’t infection rates on campuses mirror society at large? Why are they higher at richer and more selective schools?
“This a great question and one that we didn’t really try to answer,” Davis said. “To some degree, I think privilege didn’t translate directly into lower collegiate infection rates because relatively privileged students had other things they valued more, namely the quality of their educational experience.
“It probably also matters that students are a relatively mobile population—they can always take a year off, transfer, stay home—giving their preferences a great deal of weight in college decision making.”
COVID was certainly something Zacher thought a lot about. Her senior thesis inspired this study, published recently in the Southern Economic Journal.
“As a junior and senior, COVID was an unavoidable part of my everyday college life and impacted my experience drastically,” said Zacher, who majored in economics and statistics, and is now a research manager at an expert network firm. “I talked with multiple friends at other universities across the country and realized that their COVID college experiences drastically differed from mine.
“I was curious how these differences affected the spread of COVID or the number of cases.’”