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#RealCollege 2021: Basic Needs Insecurity During the Ongoing Pandemic

News April 07, 2021

Hope Center SurveyThe largest national survey of college students during the pandemic, reflecting more than 195,000 respondents, shows widespread needs for food and housing, racial inequities, and trauma suffered from COVID-19, according to a fall 2020 study by The Hope Center for College, Community & Justice. It also demonstrated where gaps in access to critical supports are widest and how they might be overcome.

Results of #RealCollege 2021: Basic Needs Insecurity During the Ongoing Pandemic show the most vulnerable students faced unexpected challenges in obtaining their education at 202 community colleges and universities in 42 states. Students suffered disrupted finances, challenges to their well-being, and exceptional levels of stress and anxiety. The survey, which averaged an almost 11% response rate, found that two-thirds of enrolled students were affected by basic needs insecurity and that rate is almost 20 percentage points higher for Black and Indigenous students than for their White counterparts.

The results point to the importance of building an ecosystem to secure students’ basic needs, said Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, President and Founder of The Hope Center.

“This is an unprecedented moment in higher education. This is the time when colleges and universities either step up and transform themselves to center students as human beings, or they double-down on the same old practices and continue to lose enrollment,” Goldrick-Rab said.

COVID fundamentally changed the landscape for higher education and the student experience in lasting ways – the consequences were felt both in terms of economics and in well-being. Many students, 41% in the survey, told us they had COVID or experienced a family member or friend with the virus. One in seven students lost a loved one. In addition, the survey found that Latinx students were twice as likely as White students to lose a loved one to COVID.

Despite the additional resources available during the pandemic, and the new focus some institutions placed on them, most students facing basic needs insecurity did not receive support. Students missed out on SNAP food benefits, emergency aid, and other critical degree-saving programs. Just 16% of students who needed support applied for emergency aid, and only 11% received it. Only 18% of students facing basic needs insecurity applied for SNAP. Gaps in access to supports were largest for men of color, and particularly African American men.

The survey revealed that most students who did not receive support either did not know about the program, thought they were ineligible, or believed that other students needed the resources more. Stigma was not a leading reason why students did not access support. Just 18 percent of students who qualified for emergency aid applied for it, with 16% receiving the support with many believing others needed it more.

“Our students are amazingly resilient, and they have prevailed notwithstanding innumerable challenges before and during the pandemic,” said Adam Jussel, J.D., Dean of Students, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “However, this data affirms that we need to meet them in that space — that it is an institutional imperative, and an ethical obligation to acknowledge these challenges and provide informed care and support.”

Enrollment dropped between the spring and fall terms of 2020, particularly among students at the greatest risk of basic needs insecurity, those who attended community college and students from minoritized backgrounds. For some demographic groups, rates of food and housing insecurity are a bit lower than seen in prior years, especially at community colleges. The report notes this may be because the most vulnerable students did not enroll in college and thus did not complete the survey, community colleges had supports in place and were better prepared for the pandemic, or because the CARES Act offered an unprecedented $6 billion in emergency aid. It is possible that the survey underestimates the extent to which basic needs insecurity affects college opportunities.

What’s Next?

While the COVID-19 vaccine offers hope for the fall 2021 term, the pandemic’s effects will be felt for years. Unless students have the supports they need, they are unlikely to earn a college degree—and the U.S. economy will suffer. Policymakers and college leaders must address students’ basic needs since learning (online or offline) depends on it. 

As the report indicates, institutions must increase their outreach about basic needs insecurity and establish ecosystems that normalize use of supportive programs to promote degree completion. The Hope Center offers many ways for colleges and universities to learn how to do this student-centered work and for policymakers and advocates to learn how to support it:

  1. The #RealCollege Virtual Journey includes free dynamic workshops and discussions throughout 2020. Sign up now!
  2. The #RealCollege Institutional Capacity-Building Cohort will offer its members a deep engagement throughout the 2021-2022 academic year. Apply now!
  3. Our Beyond the Food Pantry series, #RealCollege Blog, and Guides all include recommendations for improving practice and policy.
  4. We offer fee-based technical assistance to institutions, systems, and states.
  5. In select states and regions, we also offer membership in coalitions. Check out #RealCollege California, Philadelphia, and Texas.

Read the full report

For more information and to arrange interviews with researchers and students:

Contact Director of Communications Deirdre Childress Hopkins at