Survey finds 3 in 5 college students report basic needs insecurity

A new report from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University shows the pandemic’s impact on college students’ food and housing struggles, finding that 58 percent of students experienced basic needs insecurity in fall 2020. In addition to exploring students’ access to meals and housing, the researchers highlight factors such as institutional budgets, student health and employment, parenting demands, and use of campus and public supports.

More than one-third of respondents who were employed before the pandemic said they had lost a job during the pandemic; one in four reported a decline in their work hours or earnings. Students of color had higher rates of job and income loss than their white peers.

“The kind of resources that students have depended on, like working a job or turning to your family when you’re in a financial crisis, these things are harder now due to the pandemic,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, the Hope Center’s founding director, told The New York Times.

Financial struggles an obstacle for many students

The #RealCollege Survey results—the latest in a series of annual assessments—reflect responses from more than 195,000 students at 202 colleges and universities in 42 states. The sample includes students at 130 two-year colleges and 72 four-year institutions; 19 of the schools are historically Black or tribal colleges and universities.

While acknowledging that many basic needs affect students’ college success—including transportation, health care, and child care—The Hope Center report focuses on three specific measures of basic needs insecurity: food insecurity during the month prior to the survey, and housing insecurity and homelessness during the year prior to the survey. It shows that:

  • Students at two-year colleges were most likely to experience basic needs insecurity; 61 percent reported some form of basic needs insecurity, compared with 53 percent of students at four-year institutions.
  • Food insecurity affected 39 percent of respondents at two-year colleges and 29 percent at four-year institutions.
  • Housing insecurity—difficulty paying rent, mortgage or utility bills—affected 52 percent of respondents from two-year colleges and 43 percent of students at four-year institutions.
  • Homelessness affected 14 percent of students responding to the survey, and rates were similar across institution types.

Students of color were more likely than their white peers to experience basic needs insecurity. Across two- and four-year institutions, 54 percent of white students reported basic needs insecurity, compared with 75 percent of Indigenous, 70 percent of Black, and 70 percent of American Indian or Alaska Native students.

Other student populations with especially high rates of basic needs insecurity included those who identify as LGBTQ, are the first in their families to attend college, receive Pell Grants, attend school part-time, have experience in the foster-care system, have justice-system involvement, or are parenting while attending college.

“There are just way too many students who are struggling with food and housing and they’re unlikely to succeed,” said Goldrick-Rab. The researchers add that their estimates may be low, given the outsized enrollment declines among students at the highest risk for basic needs insecurity during the pandemic.

A call to connect students with available supports

The Hope Center researchers also looked at supports available to students in fall 2020, including CARES Act grants, emergency aid, and public benefits like Medicaid and SNAP. The pandemic, they write, highlighted for many “the importance of giving students cash and trusting them to address their individual expenses.” Around one-third of students experiencing basic needs insecurity applied for emergency aid at least once.

Among emergency-aid recipients at two-year colleges, more than three-quarters said it helped them stay enrolled, purchase educational materials, and alleviate stress. Around half of recipients used the funds to pay for food or housing. Emergency aid recipients also said the funds helped cover bills, child care, transportation, and medical care. “Taken together, these findings suggest emergency aid played a critical role in getting students through fall 2020,” the researchers say.

They add that the survey results offer “a clear message: students and colleges are suffering because of the pandemic, making the need for student-centered policies and practices stronger than ever.”

To that end, the researchers call on federal and state policymakers to invest in emergency aid, increase access to child care, maximize flexibility in public benefits programs, and ensure two-year colleges are funded equitably. They urge colleges and universities to support students by expanding emergency aid programs, addressing basic needs during enrollment, destigmatizing the use of public benefits, and ensuring students know about available resources.

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