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Sacramento State/Hrach Avetisyan

The high cost of housing in California was a challenge for Roshelle Czar even before the coronavirus hit the state. The 26-year-old Sacramento State University student had spent months looking for a job. Almost as soon as she was hired to scoop ice cream at Haagen-Dazs in downtown Sacramento, she was laid off due to the pandemic.

Family friends helped cover the rent for the off-campus apartment she shared with other students. After Sac State suspended in-person classes in March, Czar struggled to focus on her online courses while her roommates decided to party. She asked her landlord to move to a new apartment but was told it wasn’t possible due to the pandemic. So she turned to couch surfing.

“I would have people telling me I can come stay with them, and they would cancel on me after I would finish up all my packing,” Czar says. “It has been hard to call friends randomly and ask to crash at their place because I feel like I am interrupting their private and personal lives.”

A new report from the HOPE Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University on the impact of COVID-19 on food and housing insecurity indicates that Czar’s unstable living situation is all too common among college students.

Nearly 3 in 5 students experienced some kind of basic needs insecurity during the pandemic, according to the report. Forty-four percent of students at two-year colleges and 38% of students at four-year institutions reported food insecurity, while 36% and 41%, respectively, reported housing insecurity. Eleven percent of two-year students and 15% of four-year students experienced homelessness — the equivalent of 4,000 students without a place to live while trying to pursue an education.

In addition, the survey found significant racial disparities. While about half of white students experienced at least one kind of basic needs insecurity during the pandemic, those challenges impacted 71% of black students and 65% of Latino students.

Students dealing with food insecurity don’t have reliable access to or can’t afford to buy nutritious food, while housing insecurity ranges from homelessness to an inability to pay rent and utilities.

Those rates are troubling because of the correlation between basic needs security and degree completion. Many studies now show that students dealing with basic needs insecurity are less likely to remain enrolled, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, the founding director of the HOPE Center and the report’s lead author of the report.

These numbers "strongly suggests that if the pandemic disproportionately hurts black students, in terms of making them more likely to deal with basic needs insecurity, that it correspondingly reduces the chances that they graduate,” she says.

College students have been hit especially hard by the pandemic as colleges and universities shut down, cutting them off from vital support services and on-campus employment. Dependent students under the age of 24 were also ineligible for the $1,200 stimulus check, and emergency aid to students through CARES funding distributed to colleges and universities has been uneven and confusing.

While many students struggled with basic needs insecurity prior to the pandemic, the researchers behind the study say the coronavirus has exacerbated both food and housing insecurity. The HOPE Center has administered the nation’s largest annual assessment of basic needs insecurity among college students for the last five years. The most recent national survey, conducted in fall 2019, was released in February.

The more recent pandemic-focused survey was completed by about 38,600 students attending 39 two-year colleges and 15 four-year colleges and universities between April 20 and May 15. The majority of the institutions participating in the survey were community colleges, regional public universities or private institutions that serve large numbers of low-income students. The questions focused on students' experiences in the 30 days prior to completing the survey, which would capture basic needs insecurities during the pandemic.

The survey had a response rate of 6.7%, which is lower than the HOPE Center has seen on other national surveys, but Goldrick-Rab says the researchers were satisfied given the circumstances. Since the survey was administered online and many students lacked reliable internet access, she says the results might even be conservative. The email sent to students inviting them to take the survey did not mention basic needs insecurity to avoid biased results.

Goldrick-Rab says her team normally administers surveys in the fall because many students experiencing basic needs insecurity end up dropping out later in the academic year. As a result, the prevalence of food and housing insecurity in the spring semester should be lower because many vulnerable students have been removed from the survey pool. But now basic needs insecurities are slightly higher, indicating that COVID-19 has worsened these issues among college students.

While the data isn’t directly comparable to the fall survey due to the different measures used, housing insecurity and homelessness rates in particular are significantly higher among four-year students than has previously been reported. In previous surveys, community college students have had a higher prevalence of unstable living situations than their peers attending four-year institutions.

“What’s clear is that there were a bunch of on-campus students who were hurt by the move off-campus,” Goldrick-Rab says.

Students who lived in on-campus housing and relied on meal plans suddenly found themselves without access to shelter or food. But students living off campus also struggled to pay rent due to job loss.

Goldrick-Rab says that college students most often experience “sheltered homelessness,” meaning that like Czar, they move around from place to place.

“It is awfully hard to actually focus on school when you’re not sure where you’re gonna stay next,” Goldrick-Rab says. “The stress and the instability, that’s the problem. It’s not really about whether you have a roof over your head.”

The survey also asked about mental health and employment for the first time. One-third of students reported losing a job due to the pandemic, and another third experienced cuts to pay or hours. Not surprisingly, food and housing insecurity was higher among students who experienced jobs loss and cuts to pay or hours.

More than half of students surveyed exhibited at least moderate anxiety and said that they could not concentrate on schooling during the pandemic. One in five students reported they did not have access to a laptop or did not have reliable internet connectivity.

That’s something Czar dealt with, too — she said she's had severe anxiety and panic attacks. "But the hardest part was constantly dealing with wifi issues which impacted my ability to do well in my online courses,” she says.

Goldrick-Rab says that her biggest concern for upcoming fall semester is the high rates of housing insecurity and homelessness — if students come back to college at all.

I think [colleges] would be making a huge mistake if they put more time into discussions about plexiglass than into food and housing,” she says. “I’m not saying the COVID precautions don’t matter, but how are we really talking about on-campus instruction? Let’s start by talking about where are our students living.”

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