Three in five US students experienced basic needs insecurity due to Covid-19

The #RealCollege survey from Hope 4 College is an annual assessment of students' basic needs - looking at food security, housing insecurity, and homelessness.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

These are all issues to some extent in the UK, but the problem of extreme poverty among students is much more visible in the US – thanks in no small part to the work of Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of the beautifully written yet horrifying Paying the Price.

The Real College report is situated within the wider concept of “real college” – a project that looks at student attainment and attrition through the lens of poverty, and makes recommendations as to how providers should be supporting students. The data provided is a snapshot of the experiences of more than 100,000 students at 202 colleges and universities.

If students struggle financially during “normal” years (and they clearly do), the impact of Covid-19 – with the attendant loss of catering, retail, and hospitality work often done by students to pay for university living costs – has heightened the visible gap in experiences between students from different backgrounds. And, as is noted, the 13 per cent drop in enrollment numbers between autumn 2019 and autumn 2020 mean that many students had  chosen not to continue or start their studies – a group in which Black and Native American students are disproportionately represented. With 14 per cent of US adults reporting problems in affording to eat, how did Covid-19 affect students.

I attempted suicide in May. I am filling out this survey because I believe other students experiencing the same thing may not have the motivation or may be too anxious to fill it out.
(a student in Washington)

Around a third of students at both two year and four year colleges experienced anxiety and depression. Around forty per cent saw a close friend or family member fall sick with Covid-19, ten per cent (fifteen per cent of students in four-year colleges) saw a close friend or family member die due to the pandemic. Seven per cent of students were sick themselves with Covid-19. Indigenous and Latinx students were 3-4 percentage points more likely to contract Covid-19, Indigenous, Latinx, and Black students were 13-14 percentage points more likely to see a friend or family member die.

Unlike in the UK, a large minority of campuses remained fully or partially open – only three quarters of students surveyed took an online-only class during the autumn of 2020 – less at four-year colleges. Only 26 per cent of four-year colleges were closed for in-person classes.

One in three students reported having lost a job because of the pandemic, around one in five reported lower pay or fewer hours – for students working part time around 40 per cent lost a job, and a quarter saw a detriment in pay or working hours. All this put a huge pressure on university and college funds – declining enrolments, rent income and other services exacerbated an ongoing decline in state funding. The federal government allocated $14bn to emergency student aid, mandating that a significant portion of this went directly to students. with a focus on minority-serving institutions.

Overall, thirty four percent of students experienced food insecurity during the pandemic. Forty-eight per cent experienced housing insecurity, with fourteen per cent experiencing homelessness.

On food security 10 per cent of students at two year colleges, and seven per cent of students at four year colleges, reported not having eaten for a whole day because there wasn’t enough money for food. Thirty per cent of students at two year colleges (14 per cent at four year colleges) were unable to pay household bills. These hardships particularly affected indigenous students and black student, with around three quarters of each group reporting some form of basic needs insecurity. Nearly eighty per cent of care experienced students reported experiencing basic needs insecurity.

Some students have their parents’ support. Some of us need to support our parents.
(a student in California)

Funding from federal government (the CARES act) was substantial but patchy – just 20 per cent of students received grants. Community colleges struggled particularly, students who were registered as dependent on a parent or guardian were ineligible. Eligibility rules for other, previously existing schemes, also left some students to struggle The report notes a number of student led initiatives – Students Making A Change, Rise, and many provider-level groups – stepped in to support students who were experiencing difficulties.

Key uses of emergency aid included the ability to pay for educational materials (textbooks) for classes, more so than food, transit, or housing. If you are surprised by the textbook issue, the 2016 US PIRG report “Covering the Costs” is an eye-opening read – a third of US students in non-pandemic years resort to financial aid to buy textbooks.

Students in the US are often eligible for public income assistance – including more than half of students experiencing basic needs issues at 2 year colleges.

The report concludes with a range of recommendations, on streamlining and destigmatisting the use of available support, sharing information and gathering better data on basic needs (including discussing likely difficulties at the point of enrollment) and – urgently – creating new or expanding existing student aid programmes.


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