New study: College students lack basic needs amid COVID-19 pandemic

LANSING—As college students return to class—whether remotely or in person—data shows that over 50 percent of college students in the United States are experiencing insecurity when it comes to basic needs like food and housing, according to a new report. Even more stark is the data broken down by race, which shows that 71 percent of Black students are experiencing these basic needs insecurities.

The report released by the Michigan League for Public Policy, Studying in the Shadow of the Coronavirus, lays out the challenging landscape facing college students and presents solutions that the Michigan Legislature, state Department of Health and Human Services, and colleges and universities can adopt to help students make ends meet.

College students are facing significant hurdles due to the COVID-19 pandemic, including job loss, lack of internet access or technology, unaffordable child care for students who are parents and lack of housing—a staggering 15 percent of students at four-year colleges were experiencing homelessness in the spring of 2020.

“We need to realize that while high numbers of college students have a lack of housing, income and food as they continue studying through the COVID-19 pandemic, these are problems that have persisted for decades,” said Gilda Z. Jacobs, president and CEO of the Michigan League for Public Policy. “As it has done with so many inequities facing people in this country, the pandemic is really putting into stark view the work we have ahead of us and the anti-racist policies we need to create if we’re going to heal as a nation.”

The report also highlights that while the federal CARES Act signed into law in March provided aid for many college students facing hardships, many others are excluded. DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) students, international students, students in loan default, students who did not register with the selective service and more have been left out due to a rule issued by the U.S. Department of Education that excluded these students from receiving federal emergency aid grants.

Even students who are eligible for programs like SNAP (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), Unemployment Insurance and federal pandemic aid face hurdles when applying.

“A lot of college students aren’t aware that they can access supports, or they don’t have experience working with the system,” Jacobs said. “That’s why one of the League’s recommendations is to create Hunger-Free Campus legislation, which, among other things, could help students navigate public assistance applications and establish campus food pantries.”

Of the students facing basic needs insecurities, 36 percent of Black students and 31 percent of white students were not aware of federal emergency aid.

Other key data points from the spring 2020 #RealCollege survey of college students in 26 states in 15 universities, including Eastern Michigan University, and 39 community colleges, including Grand Rapids Community College:

  • 52 percent of white, 65 percent of Latinx and 71 percent of Black college students were experiencing insecurity with basic needs in the spring of 2020.
  • 15 percent of all students surveyed were experiencing homelessness in the spring of 2020.
  • 17 percent of Black college students did not have sufficient internet access in the spring of 2020.
  • 63 percent of all college students could not concentrate on schooling during the pandemic.
  • Nearly 3 in 5 of all college students were experiencing basic needs insecurity in the spring of 2020.
  • Half of students were experiencing at least moderate anxiety in the spring of 2020.

The Michigan League for Public Policy,, is a nonprofit policy institute that addresses issues of poverty.

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