2020 was a year filled with misfortune. In a year dominated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the disturbing results of a national student financial wellness survey went under the radar. According to this survey, nearly 3 in 5 college students lacked stable access to living essentials. Over half of respondents demonstrated signs of food insecurity. More than 10% had experiences with homelessness.
While students of all racial groups struggled with basic needs insecurity, Indigenous and Black students struggled most acutely. Both had 70% or more of their students reporting struggles to afford basic necessities. In a year where racial justice became a major topic of conversation, this disparity in the struggle to access higher education went relatively unnoticed.
Basic needs insecurity wreaks havoc on mental and emotional health. People unable to afford food or shelter are vulnerable to illness and increased stress. College students specifically see their academic outcomes suffer. When a student is preoccupied with affording food or rent, they’re 15 times more likely to fail a class. This leads to delayed graduation or even dropouts.
Low income individuals are 5 times more likely to move out of poverty if they earn a college degree. Escaping poverty is beneficial for human (and social) health. However, students with low incomes are some of the least likely to attend and graduate college. Community colleges are meant to be the most affordable and accessible option to low income students. Unfortunately, they suffered a 11% enrollment decline during the pandemic among low income students.
If colleges are serious about meeting all students’ needs, they need to make their emergency aid programs more visible and transparent. Between a quarter and a half of students are simply unaware of the food and housing assistance their campus can offer them. Even more don’t know the eligibility requirements.