Aiding College Students through Effective Access to Emergency Aid and Food-Housing Insecurity Relief

Income inequality and rising college costs have led to sharp increases in the number of students with unmet financial need. For many students, this manifests in food and housing insecurity as they struggle to access safe, sustainable, and adequate meals and shelter. In the most extreme cases, they experience homelessness and/or do not have any means to acquire food. These students, who are low income, are at high risk of dropping out without completing a degree. At community colleges, which enroll 38 percent of postsecondary students, the challenges are especially severe.

Two recent studies by the University of Wisconsin HOPE Lab surveyed food and housing needs of community college students as well as the capacity of colleges and universities to respond to the emergency financial needs of students. According to the studies, colleges and universities are frequently unaware of low-income students’ food and housing insecurity and fail to direct them to supplementary resources or public benefits. For colleges, the capacity to extend emergency resources for these and other challenges faced by low-income students are loosely coordinated and vary widely across campuses.

At the community colleges surveyed, 52 percent of students experienced some level of food and/or housing insecurity. These trends are also marked by racial disparities. Thirty-one percent of African American students and 23 percent of Hispanic students experienced extreme food insecurity, compared to 19 percent of White students. Racial inequities also persist in housing insecurity, with African American students faring the worst. Fifty-two percent experienced housing insecurity, while 18 percent experienced homelessness. Food and housing insecurity have major implications for students’ and their families’ wellbeing and negatively impact students’ potential for college completion.

Colleges face increasing challenges in responding to student need. In HOPE Lab’s survey of colleges, emergency aid funds varied across eligibility requirements, disbursement amounts, resource streams, and fund oversight. Even when colleges did provide emergency aid to students, they applied vastly different eligibility requirements in awarding these funds. The majority of colleges required students to be enrolled at least part time (72 percent) and use the emergency assistance for specific expenses such as medical care (71 percent), living expenses (other than food) (67 percent), transportation (57 percent), or child care (52 percent) . Less than one-third of colleges considered expenses like fees, textbooks, food, and unexpected financial loss due to accidents, fire, or theft as eligible emergencies.

Additionally, aid amounts, payout frequency, disbursement policies, and vetting processes vary across colleges and may create additional barriers for low-income students facing troubled financial situations. This challenge is sometimes reflective of college resource and capacity constraints; however, regardless of constraints, colleges have opportunities to further reduce barriers to additional financial resources. A recent CLASP report, Bolstering Nontraditional Student Success, shows how increasing access to public benefits for low-income college students could support persistence and completion. CLASP’s recommendations could have real-time impact for community college students, in particular, as 80 percent of the most food-insecure students surveyed by HOPE Lab were not receiving food stamps, even though many were likely eligible.

This timely survey also reinforces the need for reforming student aid. One of CLASP’s recommendations for reauthorization of the Higher Education Act is to target funds allocated through Supplemental Education Opportunity Grants to colleges and students with the greatest need. These Grants should include provisions for emergency aid usage.

These reforms and benefits can provide relief from food and housing insecurity caused by poverty. However, the definitive eligibility requirements for these benefits can also present barriers for low-income college students who would qualify under more practical standards. It’s essential that colleges, universities, and policymakers are aware of low-income students’ needs and that they better coordinate and provide appropriate support through more comprehensive strategies.