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More than Half of College Students Facing Housing or Food Insecurity during the Pandemic

Students of color are being disproportionately affected

July 1, 2020

As the United States simultaneously endures a historic pandemic and an economic recession, many college students are having trouble accessing basic needs. #RealCollege During the Pandemic, a recent survey from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, found that more than half of students are experiencing food insecurity, housing insecurity, or homelessness. In addition, more than two-thirds of students lost a job or suffered cuts to pay or hours, and many have been unable to get financial assistance from their campus or the federal government. One of the survey’s most troubling findings is that students of color—especially Black students, Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian students, and Indigenous students—are being disproportionately affected. (Colleges can sign up here by July 17 for the Hope Center's fall survey.)

“Basic needs insecurity among college students was already widespread before the pandemic,” the report says. “The rates are likely worse now.”

Figure 1.

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Half of All Students—Especially Students of Color—Face Basic Needs Insecurity

  • The survey received responses from 38,602 students enrolled in thirty-nine community colleges and fifteen four-year institutions across twenty-six states.
  • More than half—58 percent—of students at both four-year and two-year institutions are experiencing basic needs insecurity during the COVID-19 crisis (see figure 2).
  • Just over half of white students (52 percent) are experiencing basic needs insecurity, at least ten percentage points fewer than any other ethnic group.
  • Nearly two-thirds of Asian American (63 percent) and Hispanic (65 percent) students and nearly three-quarters of Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian (71 percent), Black (71 percent), and Indigenous (74 percent) students report facing basic needs insecurity.

Figure 2.

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Food Insecurity More Prevalent Among Community College Students

  • Community college students were more likely to have experienced food insecurity than students at four-year institutions (44 percent and 38 percent, respectively).
  • More than a third of students at community colleges reported that they couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals, couldn’t make food last long enough or afford more, had to cut meal sizes or skipped meals, or ate less than they felt they should.

Housing Insecurity and Homelessness Slightly More Prevalent at Four-Year Colleges

  • Students at four-year institutions were more likely to experience housing insecurity (41 percent) or homelessness (15 percent) than students at two-year institutions (36 percent and 11 percent, respectively).
  • Nearly one in five students at both two-year (18 percent) and four-year (19 percent) institutions reported that they “do not feel confident about my ability to pay for this place so I can stay here next month.”
  • Many students also reported that they are living in temporary housing, cannot study or attend classes in their current situation, or do not feel safe.
  • Many students are also homeless, with 9 percent of community college students and 13 percent of students at four-year institutions saying that they are staying with a friend, with a relative, or on a couch.
  • Another 4 percent are staying in hotels or motels, cars or RVs, abandoned buildings, shelters, or transitional housing.
  • According to the report, “The high prevalence of sheltered homelessness compared to unsheltered homelessness is typical for college students (and young adults ages 18–25, in general), and is a key reason why the problem remains largely invisible to the public.”

More Than Half of Students Have Lost a Job, Hours, or Pay

  • A third of community college students and 42 percent of four-year college students have lost a job during the pandemic, and another 32 percent and 28 percent, respectively, have had their hours or pay reduced. Only 36 percent of students with jobs experienced no significant change.
  • Most students who lost their jobs or experienced cuts in hours or pay are facing basic needs insecurity (70 percent and 63 percent, respectively).
  • However, according to the report, “Nearly half of working students who experienced no change in their employment also experienced basic needs insecurity. This suggests that the causes of basic needs insecurity go beyond a temporary loss of income.”

Students Report High Anxiety and Difficulty Studying

  • By analyzing student responses to a series of questions using the Generalized Anxiety Disorder Scale, the researchers found that around half of students are suffering from moderate or severe anxiety—49 percent at two-year institutions and 52 percent at four-year institutions. Less than a quarter of students at either type of institution reported feeling no anxiety.
  • Students are also facing academic challenges. More than half (50 percent at two-year colleges and 63 percent at four-year colleges) said that that they “cannot concentrate on school.”
  • Other academic challenges they cited include having to take care of family members, lacking time, and lacking technology such as a laptop or internet access.

Campuses Can Do More to Let Students Know about Financial Assistance

  • Just 21 percent of students facing basic needs insecurity have applied for unemployment, 15 percent for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and 15 percent for their campus’s emergency funds.
  • A third (33 percent) indicated that they didn’t know about assistance from their institution, and another 19 percent said they didn’t know how to apply.
  • Institutions can do more to connect students with the financial assistance available from federal programs, local organizations, and campus programs.

Images in this report are included by permission of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice from their 2020 report,#RealCollege During the Pandemic. Unless otherwise cited, all facts and figures in this article are from this Hope Center report.