The COVID Effect: How Community College Student Emergency Aid Needs Changed After the COVID-19 Global Pandemic
by Lisa Black & Zach Taylor - December 29, 2020
The COVID-19 global pandemic fundamentally changed how colleges assess and distribute emergency aid to college students. As a result, this study reports on 302 community college studentsí emergency aid requests in the months before and after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Results suggest that housing needs increased by 46% and utilities needs increased by 40%, while food needs increased by only 3% postpandemic. Moreover, data reveal that housing and utility needs were most correlated prepandemic (.77) and postpandemic (.56), while t tests revealed that the COVID-19 pandemic had the greatest impact on increased housing insecurity (d = 1.10) but no impact on food insecurity (d = 0.06). Implications for college emergency services, emergency aid, and research into food and housing insecurity are addressed.
Institutions of higher education have been administering emergency aid programs for years, with prior research investigating how college students need emergency assistance with transportation costs (Benz, 2016), food insecurity (Baker-Smith et al., 2020; Goldrick-Rab et al., 2017), and housing insecurity (Baker-Smith et al., 2020; Klepfer & Webster, 2020). However, much of the research focused on college student emergency aid has come in the form of descriptive analyses and surveys assessing college students emergency needs (Baker-Smith et al., 2020; Klepfer & Webster, 2020). Given the unprecedented and dramatic impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic on human life and institutions of higher education (Weissman & Schmidt, 2020), several important gaps in the research now exist, which this study seeks to fill in order to inform emergent work on emergency management in higher education (Farris & McCreight, 2014).
First, no prior research has explored how college students prioritize emergency needs over one another and whether certain aid is requested in tandem. For instance, studies have demonstrated that college students often require assistance in various emergency aid categories: cash for fixed expenses such as rent (Weissman & Schmidt, 2020), food assistance (Baker-Smith et al., 2020; Goldrick-Rab et al., 2017), and miscellaneous utilities necessary for persisting in higher education (Geckeler et al., 2008), among others. However, both students and institutions may need to prioritize emergency needs, given that institutions have finite emergency aid funds, and students may not receive enough institutional funds to cover all their emergency needs (Weissman & Schmidt, 2020), such as rental assistance or payment of a mechanic bill for car service.
Moreover, students may request multiple forms of aid at once, such as housing and food assistance, placing both students and institutions in a position where they must prioritize one need over another; this underscores how emergencies may affect student finances in multiple facets of their lives. Additionally, little research has focused on emergency aid needs specifically at the community college level (Benz, 2016); prior work has consistently found that students attending community colleges often come from lower income backgrounds, live in higher crime areas, and may be at risk of financial peril at higher rates than peers attending four-year institutions of higher education (Benz, 2016; Geckeler et al., 2008; Hershbein, 2018). Despite the gaps in the research, Hershbein (2018) synthesized the outcomes of many community college-focused emergency aid programs and found that these programs often boost student engagement and retention, especially for minoritized students, such as women and students of color.
Finally, the pressing nature of research and practice related to COVID-19 emergency aid programs and the rapid influx of more than $6 billion in funds from CARES Act legislation (Weissman & Schmidt, 2020) necessitate timely scholarship on COVID-19 assistance programs. As a result, this study reports on student emergency needs prepandemic and postpandemic, informing the community regarding how student emergency needs may shift as the result of a catastrophe; this study is akin to the research that emerged in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Harvey (Miller & Denham, 2020).
This study reports on student emergency aid requests at one large community college (~15,000 students) in the United States South during the months before and after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic on March 11, 2020. Analyzing 302 community college students self-assessed emergency aid applications from January 2020 to June 2020, this study answers three critical questions related to the administering of emergency aid programs and student emergency services amid a global pandemic:
What emergency needs did community college students self-report shortly before and after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared on March 11, 2020?
What correlations exist between community college students self-reported emergency aid needs?
How did student emergency aid requests change as a result of the pandemic?
Answering these questions will inform literature related to student emergency aid programs, student emergency needs, and the practitioner assessment of those needs, as well as how program managers and institutional leaders can better respond to student emergencies to increase student engagement, retention, and graduation.
This section briefly details the how the research team collected and analyzed data and addressed limitations.
Students at the institution under study completed emergency aid applications starting on January 11, 2020, and applications featured a 5-point Likert scale for students to self-assess their emergency needs across eight categories: college/education (i.e., textbooks, software); housing; utilities (i.e., electricity, water, gas, Internet); food; medical (physical) health; mental health; spiritual health; and substance use (i.e., counseling services for addiction). The program manager made plans to continually assess student emergency needs throughout the semester, but given the immediate closure of the institution, which coincided with the institutions spring break, there was a two-week interruption of emergency aid services. As a result, the program collected student emergency aid applications from January 11 to March 5, 2020 (n = 151 applications), and then again from March 26 to June 17, 2020 (n = 151 applications). Applications were completed on paper prepandemic and manually entered into an online database, while applications were completed digitally postpandemic and entered into the same database for analysis.
Once applications were collected, the research team computed summary statistics pre- and postpandemic (Table 1) to illustrate the change in emergency needs in order to answer this studys first research question. The team then performed correlation analyses (Table 2) to understand how emergency needs were related both pre- and postpandemic, answering this studys second research question. Finally, the team conducted t tests and measures of Cohens d (Table 3) to measure the magnitude of students emergency aid requests (if any) and the effect of the pandemic on each category of need, answering this studys third research question.
To protect student identities, only the date of the application and the intensity of the emergency need (15) were collected and analyzed for the purposes of this study. As a result, future research should explore individual student characteristics in relation to their emergency needs to best support students idiosyncratic circumstances. Additionally, this study was conducted at one community college in one state in the United States, and the COVID-19 global pandemic affected different institutions and different students from different geographic regions differently. From here, researchers should explore the emergency needs of college students across the country and the world to glean insight regarding how to better administer emergency aid programs for students in their time of need.
Summary statistics of community college students pre- and post-COVID-19 emergency aid requests can be found in Table 1.
Table 1. Summary Statistics of Community College Students Pre-COVID-19 and Post-COVID-19 Emergency Aid Requests (N = 302)
Data suggest that prepandemic, students indicated food as the highest need (2.31/5), followed by utilities (1.66/5). Postpandemic, needs across seven categories increased, with housing needs (46%) and utilities needs (40%) experiencing the greatest increases. Additionally, food needs (3% increase), spiritual health needs (no increase), and substance use (3% decrease) did not substantially change as a result of the pandemic. However, it is important to note that prepandemic food need was the highest category of student emergency need, possibly explaining the small increase postpandemic. Moreover, as of January 2020, the only on-site, immediate emergency service offered at the campus of study was the food pantry, potentially illuminating why food need remained high pre- and postpandemic: Students knew that same-day, immediate food assistance was available, and they knew to ask for it. Both assumptions likely signal that food insecurity is a persistent emergency need in any societal or institutional context, echoing prior literature (Baker-Smith et al., 2020; Goldrick-Rab et al., 2017).
Correlations of community college students pre- and post-COVID-19 emergency aid requests can be found in Table 2.
Table 2. Correlations of Community College Students Pre-COVID-19 and Post-COVID-19 Emergency Aid Requests (N = 302)
Prepandemic, students indicated correlated housing and utilities needs (0.77) and utilities and food needs (0.51), suggesting that students may often experience emergencies requiring multiple types of emergency assistance at once. Additionally, across all health-related needs, only medical (physical) health needs were weakly correlated with housing (0.38), utilities (0.35), and food (0.34) needs, illustrating that students may prioritize their basic needs (food, shelter) over their health needs, physical or otherwise. Moreover, moderately strong pre- and postpandemic correlations between housing and utilities may indicate that community college students were facing simultaneous rent and utility payments shortly after the pandemic was declared, possibly overwhelming these students budgets. Perhaps these students also lacked a rainy day fund to cover a large expense, such as a rent payment, given that both housing and utilities were likely the highest dollar emergency aid need; monthly food budgets are unlikely to exceed ones combined monthly housing and utility costs. Additionally, from a Maslowian perspective, one can survive 3060 days without paying rent or utility bills, but the physical consequences of going without food for 30 or 60 days are dire. In these cases, students may have needed both housing and utilities assistance, because these were the categories of aid that students had intentionally delayed or were unable to pay on their own.
Student mental health and spiritual health were strongly correlated (0.70), suggesting that students may equate their mental health with their spiritual health in times of crisis. Postpandemic, correlations were weaker across nearly every emergency aid category, with the highest correlations between mental and spiritual health (0.60) and housing and utilities (0.56). These results may suggest that students reprioritized their needs or experienced their emergency needs shift as a result of the pandemic.
Table 3 shows t tests comparing community college students pre- and post-COVID-19 emergency aid requests.
Table 3. Results of t Tests Comparing Community College Students Pre-COVID-19 and Post-COVID-19 Emergency Aid Requests (N = 302)
Cohens d effect sizes as 0.2 = small, 0.5 = moderate, 0.8+ = large.
*** p < .001.
Data suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic had the largest effect on housing needs (t = 9.39; d = 1.10) and utilities needs (t = 8.70; d = 0.98), while also having a small to moderate effect on college/education needs (t = 4.61; d = 0.51) and mental health needs (t = 3.41; d = 0.39). Across all other emergency aid categories, the pandemic had no measurable effect on community college students emergency needs. These results may suggest that housing and utilities needs may be of the highest concern for emergency aid programs on college campuses, given the relatively high needs in these categories both pre- and postpandemic. Moreover, emergency aid programs may want to assess students mental health along with financial needs, given that mental health needs increased as a result of the pandemic, per our data.
IMPLICATIONS FOR STUDENT EMERGENCY AID AND EMERGENCY SERVICES
Successfully answering this studys research questions indicates that certain student emergency aid needs are related, and these needs did change as a result of the pandemic. Given the data in Tables 1, 2, and 3, it is clear that community college students reported different types and different intensities of basic needs before and after the COVID-19 pandemic was declared on March 11, 2020. This critical finding reinforces the idea that practitioners should conduct ongoing, iterative, and individualized emergency aid assessment procedures. Our data demonstrate, through the work of the institution under study, that such assessment is both possible and pragmatic, benefitting college students in need and the institution itself. Such ongoing, iterative, and individualized assessment procedures allow college students to receive the personalized aid they need, while also documenting the successes of the emergency aid program, positioning the program for future growth through procurement of grants or institutional financial support.
Moreover, housing and utilities needs were high both pre- and postpandemic, and these needs were correlated, meaning that student emergencies, both pre- and postpandemic, may often require both housing and utilities assistance. However, institutional aid may not be enough for these students, depending on the intensity of their need or a programs budgetary constraints. As a result, emergency aid programs should anticipate these needs and connect with community-based organizations to amplify the reach of institutional programming and optimize housing-based and utilities-based emergency aid funds for community college students. Yet, without ongoing, iterative, and individualized assessment of these needs, it may be difficult to form external partnerships and community-based relationships to help connect students to extra-institutional resources during their time of crisis.
Additionally, this study found that food needs may be a persistent need for community college students: food needs were high both pre- and postpandemic and did not significantly increase postpandemic. Prepandemic, community students were food insecurepostpandemic, their situations diversified into housing and utilities needs. This three-pronged emergency demand reinforces the need for community colleges and other institutions to establish and promote food banks and other sources of food assistance, allowing students to allocate their budgets to housing or utilities if necessary. This approach would perhaps allow institutions to help greater numbers of students help themselves with housing and utilities-related emergency expenses, while satisfying the persistent food insecurity of their students.
Finally, data suggest that COVID-19 had the greatest impact on students housing and utilities needs; this may have been expected, given the effect of COVID-19 on many other groups of people, in addition to college students. However, college/education needs and mental health needs also spiked as a result of the pandemic, urging emergency aid programs to explore measuring students needs beyond the financial in everyday practice, as well as during natural disasters, pandemics, or other large-scale catastrophes. Our data suggest that community college students were affected financially, academically, and mentally: Emergency aid programs should seek to understand the COVID-19 effect on holistic student well-being, adjusting programmatic offerings to support the whole student through our collective moment of trauma and emergency.
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