Emergency COVID-19 Aid Helps College Students with Food and Housing: Four Ways Colleges Can Maintain That Support


May 26, 2020

A man carries food donated by Alianza Ecuatoriana International at a food pantry in Queens, New York, May 16, 2020, photo by Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

A man carries food donated by Alianza Ecuatoriana International at a food pantry in Queens, New York, May 16, 2020

Photo by Eduardo Munoz/Reuters

The COVID-19 crisis has derailed many Americans' best laid plans, including those of college students. Many have lost the jobs that they held to cover the costs of living and tuition. Some depend on student housing and meal plans but no longer have access to those resources.

To get students through this tough time, the federal government is providing some help. The CARES Act will provide colleges with nearly $14 billion in funding (PDF), and more than half of this is set aside for students to help with food, housing, and other basic needs. These dedicated funds will reach college students who may be ineligible for other forms of relief. College students may still be dependents and therefore ineligible for the $1,200 Economic Impact Payments, or they may not have enough recent work history to qualify for unemployment benefits.

COVID-19 has certainly expanded the pool of cash-strapped college students, but many were struggling long before the pandemic. A 2019 survey (PDF) of almost 86,000 students showed that 45 percent faced challenges in getting enough food in the prior 30 days, while 17 percent reported being homeless at some point in the previous year. For many, earning a college certificate or degree could help pave a path out of poverty. Yet when students are struggling to eat or pay rent, it can be difficult to succeed. Studies indicate that issues with food and housing are associated with lower grades and college dropout (PDF).

Colleges that screen students for public benefit programs and employ case workers to connect them to resources are more likely to see their students graduate at higher rates.

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Many colleges across the country have recognized the importance of helping their students to meet basic needs and are experimenting with different approaches. For example, there was an eight-fold increase in the number of colleges offering on-campus food pantries between 2012 and 2018 (PDF). Another common approach is emergency aid that provides students with quick access to grants of up to $1,500 to address unexpected financial issues. A federally-funded study across 11 colleges is examining these programs' effectiveness. Our own work shows that colleges that screen students for public benefit programs and employ case workers to connect them to resources are more likely to see their students graduate at higher rates.

COVID-19 could draw attention to food and housing insecurity among college students, and give college leaders a chance to consider how to address these needs more systematically over the long term. There are likely a number of effective solutions that go beyond a one-time funding infusion or a limited set of experimental programs.

Here are four things we think that colleges might do to help make progress.

Assess and Understand the Needs of Students

Many colleges have begun to survey students on their food and housing needs. Understanding the scope of the problem can help colleges to build consensus around the need to provide support, target resources to students who need them most, and ensure that programs are adequately resourced.

Scale Evidence-Based Approaches as Research Emerges

Rigorous research is underway to assess the effectiveness of different approaches like emergency aid and public benefits screening. As the evidence grows, effective approaches could be scaled to colleges across the country. Foundations and federal funders may continue to play a critical role in supporting research and initiatives to scale these programs.

Ensure Easy Access to Resources

Students facing food and housing issues may not have much time to seek out resources, may not know if they qualify, or may feel that there is a stigma associated with asking for help. Eliminating eligibility requirements is one way to ensure easy access; just 5 percent of campus food banks do any means testing. Colleges could also expand efforts to proactively deliver support rather than relying on students to hear about programs and seek out resources.

Work with State and Federal Policymakers to Improve Basic Needs Support Among College Students

With input from college leadership, policymakers might consider expanding eligibility to existing programs and develop new programs. For example, a recent Government Accountability Office (PDF) report found that states varied in policies around food stamp eligibility and might be able to alter eligibility criteria to expand access to college students. In terms of new policy, California is considering a nutrition program (PDF) that offers free or low-cost meals to students (similar to what is offered to K–12 students).

The resources provided in the CARES Act to support struggling college students during COVID-19 underscore the need to address the food and housing issues that vulnerable college students may continue to face long after COVID-19's impacts have subsided.

Lindsay Daugherty is a policy researcher at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation who specializes in education and workforce policy. Drew M. Anderson is an associate economist at the RAND Corporation and a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School.