New research shows the impact of COVID-19 on the experiences of Emporia State University students, including their access to basic needs like food and housing.
ESU was one of more than 200 U.S. colleges and universities to participate in this year’s #RealCollege survey run by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University. The #RealCollege survey is the nation’s largest annual basic needs assessment among college students. Similar to the findings for other four-year colleges and universities, the recently released results indicate that basic needs insecurities remain a reality for many ESU students, with nearly 3 out of 5 ESU students surveyed experiencing at least one form of basic needs insecurity in the prior year.
“These results taught me that I was not alone in what I was going through,” said Micheal Torres, a graduate student and member of ESU’s Basic Needs Coalition (BNC). “I realized I need to lead by example by getting assistance then put in the work to spread the word so that others in my community can get the help that they need and have the best chance at success here.”
The survey, conducted in fall 2020, indicated approximately 30% of ESU students who participated had experienced food insecurity in the 30 days prior to the survey, 48% had experienced housing insecurity in the prior year and 16% had experienced conditions consistent with homelessness in the prior year.
Results also showed that at ESU, as well as across other campuses nationally, basic needs insecurities disproportionately impact some student groups more than others. Students of color reported experiencing rates of basic needs insecurity between 12 and 17% higher than their white counterparts. LGBTQ+ students experienced rates of basic needs insecurity that were 15% higher than non-LGBTQ+ students.
“Basic needs insecurity can be a barrier to students staying enrolled and ultimately completing their college education — it’s hard to focus on your classes when you haven’t eaten or are worried about whether or not you have a stable place to live,” said Jasmine Linabary, ESU assistant professor of communication and the co-chair of the BNC. “These results underscore the importance of recognizing basic needs as an issue of educational equity that demands our attention.”
This was the second year that ESU participated in the #RealCollege survey. Previous results led to the creation of the BNC, which was commissioned by ESU’s President Allison Garrett. The BNC includes students, faculty, staff, and community representatives tasked with collaborating to address the basic needs of ESU students. In its first year, the coalition has been focused on educating the campus and community about basic needs as well as inventorying existing research and resources to identify gaps and set priorities.
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many hardships in people’s lives in and beyond Emporia during the course of the last year, including for college students. The #RealCollege survey included topics related to the impact of COVID-19 on employment, health, food insecurity, housing insecurity and homelessness, and the use of campus supports, among other topics.
At the time of the survey in fall 2020, 6% of ESU students who participated had lost a loved one to COVID-19. The mental health of ESU students had also suffered, with 45% of students surveyed reporting experiencing moderate to severe anxiety and 41% reporting experiencing moderate to severe depression.
“The Student Wellness Center does regularly interact with students experiencing anxiety and depression, and the isolation of a pandemic certainly creates challenges in meeting those needs,” said Mary McDaniel Anschutz, director of the ESU center. “Our counseling staff have found creative ways to try and safely meet those needs using teletherapy plus trying some different kinds of virtual groups to help students (and staff) process some of the feelings and experiences unique to this time.”
Many students also reported losing their jobs since the start of the pandemic. Based on the data from the #RealCollege survey, 39% of ESU students who participated had lost part-time jobs and 34% lost full-time jobs last spring due to COVID-19. Nearly a quarter of ESU students also reported loss of hours and/or pay since the start of the pandemic.
This year’s results also showed an increase in housing insecurity among college students, including those at ESU. This may be related to campus closures that left some students in unstable housing situations.
Rates of food insecurity at ESU dropped from the prior year. While this may suggest more students were able to meet their needs thanks to additional resources like funding from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act or campus resources like Corky’s Cupboard, ESU’s food pantry, that adapted to still provide for students in light of the pandemic, it may also reflect students who did not return to campus due to challenges related to their basic needs.
“During the pandemic, we have tried to provide food to students in various ways whether it was providing food through the Student Wellness Center to quarantined students, providing pre-packaged bags, or offering pop-up pantries throughout campus,” said Blythe Eddy, ESU director of student activities and community service and co-chair of the BNC. “We want to make sure students have access to the food they need, and we know there are even more students who we are still not reaching.”
Use of Campus Supports
Because of the impact of COVID-19, a variety of emergency aid was made available to college students through both institutional programs and federal aid, such as funding from the CARES Act. Despite these supports, only 16% of ESU students who were facing basic need insecurities reported using these resources. As the survey results indicate, barriers such as lack of knowledge and stigma around using such resources seemed to keep students from seeking help.
“It is important to get information out to our students about the resources they have available to them, and we need to do better at doing so,” said Brayden Soper, president of ESU Associated Student Government.
One way Emporia State’s BNC is seeking to address this is through a website launched this month that aims to provide a ‘one-stop-shop’ for students to find and access resources in support of their basic needs. The coalition is also working on a communication plan to promote these resources and combat the stigmas related to using them.
“Visits to Corky’s Cupboard are up, and Sodexo Dining Services has helped numerous students to access food on campus, but I know that there are still students out there who have struggled in the last year,” Torres said. “We will do everything in our power to reach them by spreading the word and creating awareness.”
Basic needs issues are not limited to college students. Community members who are in need can visit www.emporiastrong.com to find support or donate to local organizations.