COVID-19 intensifying college students’ housing, food insecurity

A new report from The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice sheds light on food and housing insecurity experienced by college students during the COVID-19 shutdowns. According to the online survey, which was completed by 38,602 students between April 20 and May 15, almost 3 out of every 5 students said they were experiencing basic needs insecurity during the pandemic. 

Forty-four percent of students at two-year colleges and 38 percent of students at four-year colleges said they were food-insecure in the 30 days prior to the survey. Thirty-six percent of students at two-year institutions and 41 percent at four-year institutions said they were housing-insecure at the time of survey completion. The survey, the report states, “confirms what students have been telling their institutions, the media, and anyone who would listen over the past several months: their health and well-being have been adversely impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.” 

Job loss widespread, disparities magnified

The survey also for the first time asked students about their employment, finding that students’ job security teetered on unstable ground. Of the 74 percent of students who reported having jobs before the pandemic, 42 percent from four-year colleges and 33 percent from two-year colleges said they were laid off from at least one job. 

Meanwhile, among students who had their pay or hours reduced, 63 percent reported basic needs insecurity. Even among students who said their employment status was not altered by the pandemic, nearly half reported experiencing some level of basic needs insecurity, hinting that job loss only intensified existing instabilities. 

The report also highlights the heightened basic needs insecurity threatening retention for students of color. Seventy-four percent of Indigenous and 71 percent of Black students responding to the survey reported facing basic needs insecurity, compared to 52 percent of white students, illustrating how the pandemic has magnified pervasive racial disparities. Carrie Welton, The Hope Center’s director of policy and co-author for the study, points to this finding as the crux of a dire call to action. 

“We know that post-secondary attainment is one of the most reliable pathways to economic security,” Welton told Diverse Issues in Higher Education. “So until we address these systemic barriers that are overwhelmingly, disproportionately racially driven, we’re going to continue to see massive racial wealth and income gaps because these barriers start at some of the earliest stages of our lives and just all the way through.”

Related: More than half of student-parents reported basic needs insecurity—before the pandemic >

Spotty aid distribution

Further complicating matters, distribution of emergency relief funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act has lagged at some institutions amid shifting guidance and administrative hurdles. 

While waiting for two months after the CARES Act was signed to receive emergency federal aid, “[w]e really had to stretch ourselves really thin to keep our heads above water,” Esosa Ruffin, a recent alumna of Monmouth University told The Chronicle of Higher Education. “We live paycheck to paycheck, and so when the paychecks stop coming in, you really have to eat what’s in your house.” On top of that, undocumented students and DACA recipients have especially struggled to access funds; the Department of Education issued a rule this month officially barring them from receiving CARES Act emergency aid. Ben Miller, vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, called Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’ decision “confusing, unnecessary, and exclusionary.”

“The rule is designed to deny help to some of the most vulnerable students, such as those who are undocumented or haven’t completed a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), by making them ineligible for emergency aid at a time when all students are feeling the effects of the global pandemic,” Miller said. 

Given magnitude of insecurity, experts urge close monitoring

Emphasizing that more than 4,000 students completed the survey while homeless, Sara Goldrick-Rab, founding director of The Hope Center and an author of the report, says the data show only a portion of students who are battling housing insecurity, adding that those “in the worst trouble” likely didn’t have the internet access needed to complete the survey. She fears the rates of homelessness will increase by the fall semester. “It is awfully hard to actually focus on school when you’re not sure where you’re gonna stay next,” she told Money.

Goldrick-Rab recommends that colleges and universities begin collecting more specific data on students’ basic needs at least twice per semester. “Anybody making plans to open their college this fall—and any policymaker who thinks that they know something about opening colleges in the fall—has to look at this,” she told Diverse Education. “They’re worried about plexiglass. They’re talking about online teaching. Let’s get this straight. You can’t engage students who don’t have a place to sleep.”

90 Days with Georgetown: Sustaining our community’s strength

COVID-19 has left many families facing ever-greater financial strain, making Georgetown’s foundational commitment to access, affordability, and student success all the more important. Learn how our new summer-long initiative, 90 Days with Georgetown, seeks to support Georgetown students and lay the foundation for success in the coming academic year.

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