How Basic Needs Insecurity Hurts College Students

During the COVID-19 pandemic, a national survey set out to assess the financial wellness of students. The results were shocking. In 2020, nearly 3 in 5 of America’s college students lacked stable access to living essentials. Over half of respondents showed signs of food insecurity. More than 40% were housing insecure. At its worst, over 10% of students had experiences with being homeless.

While basic needs insecurity struck college students in all racial groups, Black and Indigenous students reported the highest numbers (70% and 75%, respectively). In the same year that America faced a new reckoning with racial injustice, the struggles of BIPOC students went under the radar. These higher levels of basic needs insecurity translate to stunted academic outcomes. When a student is preoccupied with affording food and shelter, they’re far more likely to drop or fail classes. Less than 20% of struggling students graduate within 5 years. Too often, they simply drop out.

Even during a pandemic-induced recession, the cost of a college education has not stopped rising. While financial aid exists, it is nowhere near as generous as it used to be. On introduction in 1975, Pell Grants covered 79% of average tuition costs. In 2019, the maximum Pell Grant funding covered 29% of average tuition costs. To afford schooling AND daily living expenses, students must take out loans and work longer hours on top of class. 43% of full-time students work during the academic year. Aid and jobs help, but as the survey shows, they’re still not enough.

If colleges are serious about retaining low income and BIPOC students, they need to be more transparent about offering emergency financial assistance. Many campuses have food and housing aid available to students. However, up to half of the school’s student body is unaware of these programs even existing.

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