Assessing College Student Challenges During the Pandemic

Eddy Conroy of Temple University’s Hope Center explains how the Center collects data about the plight of students both prior to and during the pandemic, and offers next steps for helping students meet the challenges they face, like food insecurity and housing insecurity.

Eddy Conroy

Dan:     We’ve discussed a lot on this podcast about the challenges that students are facing, and so we thought we’d bring on an expert. My guest is Eddy Conroy, Associate Director of Institutional Transformation (that has got to be the coolest job title ever) for the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University. Originally from Scotland, he moved to the United States in 2010. Before joining the Hope Center, he was the outreach and communication supervisor for the University of California, Los Angeles, Office of Financial Aid and Scholarships, where he created and ran the office’s first proactive communications plan, managed their outreach programs, and worked with the university’s economic crisis response team, helping ensure that UCLA students in dire need were provided the resources they needed to succeed. He was also a financial aid counselor at Vanguard University of Southern California, and has provided training in financial aid issues and policies to hundreds of high school counselors and advisors. He holds an MA in political science from the University of Glasgow and is currently working toward his doctorate of education, also at the University of Glasgow. You can follow Eddy on Twitter @econroy_1. Eddy, welcome to the podcast.

Eddy:    Thank you so much for having me, Daniel.

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Dan:     I’d like to give you a moment to tell us a little bit about the Hope Center and what it does.

Eddy:    Sure. The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, as our full name is, is an action research center located at Temple University in Philadelphia, and we focus on this idea that students are humans first; that things like basic needs for food, housing, transportation, mental health care, are really central conditions for learning, sort of thinking about this as a Maslow-over-Bloom idea, as we go about our research. And so our work then focuses on how do we think about evaluating research and then hopefully design and advocate for improvements in higher education financing and the way we go about teaching and learning, so that students can really be supported in all of the ways they need to be as humans, so they can then be successful academically.

Dan:     I know that you have done a lot of work regarding low-income students, especially during the pandemic. Can you tell us a little bit about how low-income students are being impacted by it?

Eddy:    Yeah, for sure. One thing I would say is that while low-income students are definitely bearing the brunt of the burden with things going on through the pandemic, we have such a huge number of people who have lost jobs and have lost income, that we’re seeing this effect, not just on students from low-income backgrounds, but on students who come from middle-class and middle-class backgrounds, where they are often being affected just as greatly. And we’ve seen that in prior research as well, which I know we’re going to talk a little bit about. But some of the stuff that we’ve seen – we put out a survey in the early months of the pandemic; we field it in April and then we released the results in June of this year – and that survey talked to over 38,000 students from 26 different states. We’re seeing that nearly three and five students were experiencing some form of basic needs insecurity, so that means that they were either facing food insecurity, housing insecurity, or they were homeless. Things like food insecurity were affecting up to 44% of students at two-year institutions and 38% of students at four-year institutions. We’re seeing really significant effects on students in terms of physical, basic needs well-being. We’re seeing some very troubling data in the survey that we did around mental health. So we saw half of respondents telling us that they were experiencing at least moderate anxiety and over half of respondents of four-year institutions, that they couldn’t concentrate on their academic study as a result of things going on through the pandemic, which includes things like, all of a sudden having to study at home instead of being in the library. You know, if you have a relatively small place to live and it’s being shared with multiple family members that becomes much more challenging to study in than being able to go to campus. So that’s sort a high-level overview, depending on what else we want to talk about, we can go into more detail.

Dan:     Just to clarify, to what extent are the challenges that you’ve identified simply a magnification of what students previously faced, versus new obstacles that are unique to the pandemic?

Eddy:    There’s a little bit of both, but the evidence that we have collected over the past five years of surveying students and doing research around basic needs issues suggests that this is a magnification of trends that were already in existence. So earlier in the year, in early February, we put out our fifth national report of what we call the Real College Survey, looking at basic needs issues for students. This survey was done in the fall of 2019, so it was before anything to do with the pandemic hit. And even when we were doing that, we were coming back with close to 40% of respondents were food insecure in the prior 30 days, over 45% of respondents were housing insecure, and about 17% were homeless in the previous year. So we’re seeing some exacerbation of these issues. As the numbers that I shared about our pandemic report for usually when we talk about housing insecurity and homelessness, we asked students, what has your experience been over the past year? So we ask questions to determine whether they’re experiencing housing insecurity or have been homeless in the past 365 days. When we did our pandemic report, we asked, what is your experience as of the day you are completing the survey, essentially. So that snapshot in time suggests that if the numbers are close to being as troubling as they were, when we asked students about an entire year of their life, then we’re going to be going to see these things getting worse. But all of that is to say that students have been on the edge, in many cases, of survival for a long time. We have now got five years worth of survey data, and year after year, it spits back similar numbers saying a really large proportion, usually over 40%, so we’re getting close to half of the students that respond to our surveys, are experiencing some kind of basic needs insecurity. That’s symptomatic of a financial aid system that has been inadequate to the needs of students for a long time. It’s symptomatic of underfunding of public higher ed education in particular. We still, before the pandemic, had not caught up to per-student funding levels in public higher education from the great recession. All of that has led to this place where even if you were doing okay, even if you weren’t in our surveys, say you were food or housing insecure before the pandemic, so many families were really close to the edge to begin with that this last shock is the thing that’s pushed them over the edge and it’s making these issues all the more challenging to deal with.

Dan:     Besides the self-reporting in the survey, do you use any other measures to determine how the problem is worsening?

Eddy:    The survey is certainly our flagship research project, where in terms of looking at this, that we’re asking for self- report, mostly because it’s hard to get at these kinds of questions through anything other than self-report. There are other projects that we work on, where we look at outcomes of things like food, scholarships, things like housing programs, and that we gather more detailed information through interviews and through administrative data. But the survey for basic needs issue is our primary vehicle for trying to get at these kinds of issues. We are excited that after we’ve been doing this for five years, that we’re starting to see questions about basic needs get added into nationally representative surveys. So we probably won’t have data coming back from those for another couple of years because nationally representative surveys have some time lag on them, but we’re sort of hopeful that we want to be able to say that these numbers are nationally representative and we’re confident that they’re pretty accurate. But we’re excited to see federal studies and federal surveys come in behind us and hopefully confirm what we’ve been seeing for the past five years.

Dan:     Can you take us through the survey, the range of things that you’re asking students about? I know you already described a few of them, can you tell us about how comprehensive it is?

Eddy:    Sure. So I’ll answer that for the survey that we field annually, we have that in the field right now, and then there were some differences with the one that we put out in the field for the pandemic report that we produced in June. For food insecurity, we use a validated panel of survey questions that’s been developed by the Department of Agriculture, and has been used for a long time to assess food insecurity. So it asks, in a three-stage process, simple questions like, did you have to eat less than you wanted to, to make money stretch? Did you ever run out of money? Were you unable to eat balanced meals? Those kinds of questions, all the way down to, did you have to skip meals on one or more day during a certain time period? Have you experienced physical experiences of hunger, like hunger pangs? Those kinds of questions. So that’s what we use for food insecurity; I won’t go through every question. For housing insecurity and homelessness; we use a very similar approach to that used by the federal financial aid system, that helps financial aid administrators assess whether a student is homeless or at risk of homelessness. And that’s defined in the McKinney Vento Act. It includes traditional questions around homelessness, things like: did you, at any point, sleep in a location that was not designed for human habitation? So things like sleeping in your car, or sleeping in an abandoned building or unsheltered homelessness; sleeping on the streets. But we also ask questions like, did you have to couch surf? Did you have to move, you know, due to not being able to afford rent or not being able to pay your utilities? Were you late on rent or utilities at any point in the time period that we’re asking about? And so obviously some of those questions, they get to issues of homelessness, but housing insecurity is also this spectrum where we see students who are not necessarily homeless, but they are housing insecure. Their rent has been increased so they’ve had to move more than once in the past year, or they’re having to choose between paying for utilities and putting food on their table. So those are the kinds of questions that we ask to determine housing insecurity,

Dan:     Switching to higher education as an industry, I’m curious as to the steps you’ve seen, if any, that higher education is taking to address the issues that these students are facing.

Eddy:    That is challenging for a lot of institutions. Obviously, institutions are in this very difficult position of not having sufficient funds and being underfunded for a long time, while at the same time now facing students who really have serious needs that they need help with. We did a survey of institutions during the same time period that we did our pandemic student survey. And we are seeing some positive things. So some institutions have worked on helping students access public benefits, particularly things like SNAP benefits, which can help with food provision for students has been something we’re starting to see a little bit of an increase in. Institutions starting to find innovative ways to provide additional food for students, even when they’re not on campus. So we’ve seen things like drive-through food pantries as opposed to traditional food pantries, and then also trying to expand emergency aid as well. So something else that we have done quite a lot of work on is emergency aid, and we’re seeing more and more institutions either through using CARES Act money that they received as part of stimulus funding, try and put emergency aid in place, or developing their own emergency aid programs, either in addition to CARES Act funding, or to help provide funding for students who maybe weren’t eligible for CARES Act because of the onerous restrictions that the Department of Education placed on the CARES Act money that colleges could distribute. One of the challenges that we’re seeing for all of these things, with the institutions that we’ve surveyed and that we work with on a regular basis, is capacity and funding – that they are trying to fundraise for emergency aid programs, they’re trying to fundraise to provide technology for students. I guess that’s another area where we’ve seen really great work from institutions; realizing that if we’ve sent all of our students to take their classes from home, we’ve got a big chunk of students who maybe don’t have a working internet connection, or certainly not one that’s high-speed enough to get on Zoom, or they don’t have a laptop at home. We have anecdotal evidence, but fairly substantial anecdotal evidence, of students who often are trying to take classes just on their cell phones and things like that. So we’ve also seen good work from some institutions of trying to figure out how to provide mobile hotspots, how to provide, whether it’s a laptop or a Chromebook or an iPad, something that students can work on that will allow them to write papers, attend classes online, those kinds of things. So there’s good work being done. There’s still a lot of room to grow and improve. And particularly as we unfortunately seem to be seeing the pandemic just sort of lengthen out in front of us, I think this work is going to have to go on for some time.

Dan:     I actually do want to talk about that future work, but as you describe what colleges are currently doing, and I know that you have access to data, that must be very discouraging. In other words, despite the things that you’re listing, you’re still receiving the survey responses that show that students are being very deeply effected. Would you say that that’s an accurate assessment?

Eddy:    Absolutely. One of the things that we’ve done a little differently this year is on top of the quantitative data that we gather in surveys is we’re running several projects that are going on at the moment, asking for students, faculty, and staff to share experiences so that we can combine the quantitative data that we gather – with these very large surveys of hundreds, of thousands of students – with some of the visceral experiences of students and staff and faculty. I want to acknowledge that this is not just affecting students. There are a lot of staff and faculty who are busting their gut to get stuff done, to provide for students in much less than perfect circumstances. And I have read through a lot of those responses and it’s hard to read them – reading stories from students about I’m struggling in classes because I’m now at home supporting family members or I’m working more than I wanted to because my father lost his job, my mother lost her job, and now I’m the primary breadwinner at the moment for the family. We also have seen our pandemic report, the responses that we had in that about two thirds of students, either lost a job as a result of the pandemic or their hours were cut as a result of the pandemic. And so, you know, on top of all of these other things, students who were already likely struggling have lost some or all of their income as well. So yes we are definitely seeing these stories and responses come in from students that are very difficult to see. We do a good job though, as the Hope Center, of maintaining hope, we talk about hope being a strategy. We’re still hopeful even in the midst of all of this.

Dan:     Looking to the future, the pandemic is larger and longer than most colleges guessed it would be. Are there realistic steps that could be taken to assist students steps in addition to what you’ve already described, that colleges or governments could actually afford? I’m guess I’m asking a three-part question: I’m looking for things that colleges or governments could do that aren’t already being done, that they could actually afford, and that would actually produce a real consequence, make a serious dent in the problem.

Eddy:    I’m going to be cautious about opining on things that I don’t necessarily have data to back up. I think the first thing I will say is maybe to challenge a little bit the idea of what can be afforded. I think this is a question of what we choose to afford as a society, and that becomes obviously a much bigger question. One of the places that I think colleges can start is about continued and increasing advocacy to help people understand where public higher education actually stands in terms of funding, because frankly, that is a central issue. You know, if we’re talking about affordability, at a time when budgets are already strained, we’re seeing the pandemic cause even bigger holes in those budgets, along with a pandemic-induced recession. Now, traditionally higher education has been counter-cyclical, where when there’s a recession, enrollment actually goes up and that some, not completely, but helps bring in a little bit more per-student funding, even if it’s not always enough to cover all of the extra expense. We’re not seeing that with the pandemic, which makes this even more challenging. Matt Reed, who writes the Dean Dad column for Inside Higher Ed and –

Dan:     We’ve actually had him on this podcast before. [Laughs]

Eddy:    [Laughs] Yeah. So Matt Reed, and then Tressie McMillan Cottom as well, have both been writing in the past couple of months about the fact that this is not looking like the traditional kind of counter-cyclical approach. So a big piece is advocating for funding for higher education. I know institutions do this already, but there’s a public advocacy piece that’s important here. There was a report. I think it came out in the Washington Post in the past three or four months, which said that a majority of the public believes that higher education funding on a per student basis has been increasing over recent years and is now above the amount it was at the end of the great recession. And that is just not the case. We’re still below the levels of funding on a per student basis than we were pre-great recession. Higher ed has a public image problem here, where people think that there’s enough money in higher education, so they get very frustrated when tuition is high and they don’t feel like students are being supported in the way they should be. But the reality is that this is happening because funding is inadequate. So there’s a story to be told there, to help the public understand we really need more money. We’re not even back to where we were in 2008 on a per student basis. And it’s more than a decade since then. So that’s one area, and we try to do some of that ourselves at the Hope Center,. Continuing to do some of the pieces that you know, I already talked about in terms of technology and basic needs support for students, a huge area with room for expansion is encouraging students to sign up for public benefits and give, just giving them information about public benefits. One of the things that we saw in the pandemic report was a huge number of students didn’t even know that things like SNAP were available to them, not in all cases, but in a lot of cases it might’ve been, as well as unemployment insurance for students who were working. We know from work we do that a huge percentage of students are working while they’re in college and are often eligible for unemployment insurance if they lose their job, but they don’t know about it. And those are two areas where information to students from colleges, cost colleges a little bit of money in terms of staff time and those things, but it doesn’t mean that the colleges are providing the support themselves. So that’s a really great way to take advantage of systems that already exist to support students.

Dan:     My guest has been Eddy Conroy, Associate Director of Institutional Transformation for the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University. You can follow him on Twitter @econroy_1 and the Hope Center @Hope4College. Eddy, thanks very much for joining us.

Eddy:    It has been very much my pleasure. I’m glad that you could have me on, Daniel.

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