Report: More than half of college students struggle with food, housing amid COVID-19 pandemic

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Jasmine Jordan, a Michigan State University (MSU) senior, has endured a challenging last nine months. In December, she suffered a bout of pneumonia. In March, her grandmother, Jackie, died from COVID-19. Her parents also acquired coronavirus during the spring but have recovered. And, if all of that wasn’t enough, MSU officials in March abruptly closed the campus for in-person learning and went to a remote model.   

Jordan, who suffers from sickle cell disease, did not want to return home where her health could be compromised due to her parent’s condition. After nearly all of MSU’s students left campus and headed home, she remained virtually alone for another four weeks until it was safe to return to her family’s Detroit home.

Jasmine Jordan

“I’m from Michigan and it was difficult for me to get home,” Jordan said, noting that other students from other parts of the state, country and world, faced big logistical challenges getting back home after the school closure.

And now, as she heads into her last year at MSU, the 20-year-old is finalizing her course schedule. Unwilling to reside in a dorm room or with others in an off-campus apartment given the COVID-19 pandemic, Jordan recently secured a studio apartment near MSU — but that came at a cost.

“It is if they [MSU officials] think that students have this indispensable pot of money to just spend,” Jordan said.

Yet in spite of all the challenges, she will begin the most important school year of her life on Wednesday. And as college students return to class — whether remotely or in person — data show that more than half 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 racial divide, with 71% of Black students 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% of students at four-year colleges were experiencing homelessness in spring 2020.

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“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. 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,” said Gilda Jacobs, Michigan League for Public Policy president and CEO.

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 the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), 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. 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,” Jacobs said.

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

The spring 2020 #RealCollege survey of college students in 26 states in 15 universities, including Eastern Michigan University, which has a large number of students from families with low incomes and one of the highest percentages of Black students in the state, and 39 community colleges, including Grand Rapids Community College.

Other key data points are:

  • 52% of White, 65% of Latino and 71% of Black college students were experiencing insecurity with basic needs in the spring of 2020.
  • 15% of all students surveyed were experiencing homelessness in the spring of 2020.
  • 17% of Black college students did not have sufficient internet access in the spring of 2020.
  • 63% of all college students could not concentrate on schooling during the pandemic.
  • Nearly three in five of all college students were experiencing basic needs insecurity in the spring of 2020.
  • Half of students were experiencing at least moderate anxiety in spring 2020.
Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.