A year after the onset of COVID-19, students continue to fight aftershocks of a pandemic that has hit hard a segment of the population already struggling with food, housing and income insecurity. A recent Survey on the heroes of the course out of more than 11,000 learners found that more than a quarter of all students reported losing their jobs during the pandemic, and 22% reported receiving unemployment benefits.
In this context of growing financial uncertainty, university enrollments has fallen sharply. Undergraduate enrollment plummeted this fall 3.6 percent – or more than 560,200 students. When the data is disaggregated, it raises critical questions about fairness, as declines are particularly pronounced among community college students, first-generation students, and students from low-income backgrounds.
In an era when the new majority of learners are working, having children, or attending college part-time, the complexities of paying for higher education are greater than ever. Even before the pandemic, 2019 data Research by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice found that 46 percent had experienced housing insecurity at some point in the past year, and 39 percent had experienced food insecurity in their 30s days after investigation.
COVID-19 has only amplified these challenges. But the good news is that help is on the way. Congress recently authorized $ 39.6 billion in funding for colleges and universities as part of the US bailout, half of which is to be used for emergency student aid.
As community college leaders, we are encouraged to see the federal government act on this critical issue. This was in many ways a statement of what members of the community college movement have long advocated – networks like Achieving the Dream and JFF Political Leadership Trust coalition to advocates like the Hope Center.
But with this injection of federal funding, we now have a challenge ahead of us. Institutions are faced with the daunting task of disbursing these billions of dollars in order to help the millions of students still in shock after a year fraught with financial, academic and personal challenges.
Here are three ways you can use emergency aid to make the biggest impact.
Meet basic needs. Research shows that between 11 and 45 percent of students cannot afford enough food to stay healthy. As the pandemic raged, food insecurity only grew, with an estimate one in six Americans to be hungry. Likewise, students find it difficult to pay their rent.
In a recent survey of 17,000 students, basic human needs such as food and shelter each accounted for a quarter of students’ most urgent emergency aid needs. Students cannot concentrate on their schoolwork if they are busy wondering where their next meal will come from or if they are going to be kicked out. Emergency aid must aim to meet these basic but urgent needs.
At Miami Dade College, for example, students have long had access to eight on-campus pantry locations, supplied by donations and run by volunteers. Any student is allowed to receive food from the pantry. Last year, the college also began offering grocery gift cards – ranging from $ 50 to $ 100 – to students who had visited the pantry at least three times.
Students at Amarillo College also have access to a pantry. As the pandemic continued, the college created a digital storefront so that students could safely request food from the online pantry.
Bridge the digital divide. The massive shift to distance and hybrid learning that has occurred in response to the pandemic has underscored how deep the digital divide remains. According to a survey by New America and Third Way, nearly 60 percent of students surveyed last year said they did not have adequate access to a stable, high-speed internet connection.
Students from low-income backgrounds who relied on the internet and campus computers found themselves stranded, struggling to find the technology not only to complete their homework, but also to attend class. Community college students have been hit particularly hard, and institutions have responded by lending student laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots.
Build an integrated support system. In Miami Dade and Amarillo, the actions we’ve taken to meet the needs of students during the pandemic are part of a larger integrated system. Miami Dade’s one-stop-shop program is, as the name suggests, a one-stop-shop for a variety of social services.
Food insecure students, for example, can not only visit the pantry, but also work with coordinators who can help them be screened for a variety of federal, state and local resources like BREAK. Over the past 12 years, Single Stop has helped 66,000 students receive food assistance, mental health counseling, financial support, legal aid and other services. Miami Dade has built an ecosystem of external partners that includes community organizations and private and public sector agencies that help provide holistic support to its students.
Amarillo College takes a similar holistic approach. The college’s No Excuses Poverty initiative is a systems approach to addressing student poverty. The program is designed to increase persistence and improve graduation rates among students from low-income backgrounds, and it consists of four main components: social services, a pantry, a mentoring program and a career center. It integrates accelerated learning, predictive analytics, comprehensive social services and emergency assistance into one system, which has resulted in a completion growth rate of 185% over the past six years. Having such robust and easy-to-navigate systems in place has been crucial in helping students find the help they need.
Emergency aid has long been a crucial part of helping students stay enrolled and on track to graduate, and it’s great to see more institutions and policymakers take note of its importance. The biggest lesson we, as education officials, can learn from the pandemic, however, is this: The pandemic has exacerbated these challenges but not created them.
May this year serve as a radical awareness of how we understand and begin to meet the needs of today’s students. We cannot let the cost of living derail the academic hopes of millions of them.