Fall Update: Meeting Student Basic Needs During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting campuses nationwide. Here are a few of the ways that institutions are stepping up to meet students’ basic needs during the new term

Zack Szlezinger

Former Field Organizer, Student PIRGs

The COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting campuses nationwide. Over the summer, instructors and support services have developed new ways to function online, in person, or with some combination of the two. Many students are wondering how this transition will affect their ability to put food on the table and pay bills. Here are a few of the ways that institutions are stepping up to meet students’ basic needs during the new term: 


Housing and Food Access

Although many colleges are beginning to open for the fall term, they are also developing contingency plans in case they need to shut down, which universities such as Notre Dame, Michigan State University, and University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill already have. Closing dorms has the potential to displace students, especially low income students, students experiencing food or housing insecurity, international students, and students with strained relationships with their guardians. Closure of dining services also has the potential to increase food insecurity for low income students who live off campus. Like in the K-12 school systems, some students rely on their college to provide food access. We urge residential life to maintain some housing options for these students, including access to a kitchen or dining hall take out, if open.

It is likely that more universities will have to close their campuses within the next few weeks and throughout the fall. As they do so, they should reimburse students for unused meal plans and on-campus housing. UNC has announced that they will reimburse students for housing and dining within the next three weeks.

Students who are food insecure who live close to campus may also be facing increased hardship at this time. Students often rely on part-time jobs to meet their basic needs, and as many businesses have shut down or have decreased hours and resources, many of these students have lost their jobs. Additionally, as many campuses have gone online, it has become more difficult for campus food pantries to make sure that all of their students have access to food. Campuses should work to expand their resources for food-insecure students. In Little Rock,  Arkansas, Philander Smith College has launched a new program. They will continue to keep their food pantry open for local students to share pre-packaged food baskets. For students living outside of town taking online classes, the food pantry will send $50 gift cards for groceries as well as emergency funds on a case-by-case basis


Financial Aid

The pandemic has drastically changed many families’ financial situations. These students received financial aid packages based on their needs pre-pandemic. As those needs have changed, students may appeal for different financial aid packages.  Swift Student, a tool to help students navigate how to update their financial aid package, has developed online resources and templates with information about how students can change their financial aid plans in response to COVD-19 and receive supplemental aid. 

In addition to traditional financial aid programs, students may be eligible for emergency grants, set up by the CARES Act, which allocated approximately 14 billion dollars to institutions of higher education. Some colleges, such as UC Berkeley, have raised additional funds from donors to supplement the funding from the CARES Act, which has not been sufficient to provide for all students in need. Montgomery County Community College in Maryland has similarly raised money for emergency aid for students on top of the CARES Act funding, and has announced that all students, regardless of whether they are domestic, international, or undocumented, are eligable to apply for a grant.


Work Study Wages

Students with financial aid packages that include work-study benefits depend on that income to pay their bills. With many colleges moving online, students are competing for a limited number of remote jobs. Meanwhile, students on campuses that are still open are forced to choose between a loss of income and increased exposure to COVID-19. Some colleges that have shrunk their work-study programs are encouraging students to take out larger student loans to compensate for lost income.

Dickinson College has outlined three options for its students. Students who will be on campus can continue to work in person; those who are not able to return to campus will be given remote jobs, and those who cannot work either in person or remotely will continue to be paid for the jobs that they had in the previous term. We urge colleges and universities to create new remote-work positions that do not require their students to take out additional loans, work jobs that increase their risk of exposure to COVID-19, or lose the income that they depend on from work-study.


Computer and Internet Access

While today’s generation of college students widely own smartphones or laptops, getting online can still be a challenge. Phones may have limited data plans, computers might be slow and aging, or home wifi might be too weak or inconsistent to share with family members. To help students and workers who are now working from home, Comcast announced nationwide free wifi access until the end of 2020. Many institutions are loosening the rules around on-campus laptop rentals to allow students to take them home for extended periods. Compton College in California has mailed both laptops and hotspots to in-need students, while UC Riverside’s library has launched a curbside pickup option.

Course Materials Access

While universities moved many or all of their classes online this past spring, publishers and ed tech companies offered temporary free access codes for students to submit homework. Now, those free passes are gone – and beyond their high price, commercial products like these pose numerous problems for students, such as their lack of instructor flexibility, reliance on a strong wifi connection, and student data privacy. Faculty should consider free open educational resources that are more adaptable to their teaching style and this learning environment. The University of Minnesota’s Open Textbook Library, UC Davis’ LibreTexts, and Rice University’s OpenStax are great sources for high quality open materials, with links to free homework solutions. 

This fall, Rutgers University has expanded its Open and Affordable Textbook Program  directly in response to faculty demands to cut student costs because of COVID-19. The program is projected to save over two million dollars for more than 16,000 students over the next few terms. In addition to open textbooks, college and university faculty should consider assigning materials the library already owns, or sharing chapters or select pages from copyrighted books. Stony Brook University has a good guide to fair use of copyrighted materials for educational purposes. 


Mental Health Resources

The pandemic has forced students to stay inside, distanced from some of their most supportive relationships and unable to do many of the activities that keep them happy and healthy. In addition, students cannot access all of the mental health resources they used before the pandemic. According to a Pew Research Center study, 33 percent of Americans have displayed signs of depression, anxiety, or both since the pandemic began. In response, campuses should expand their mental health resources and provide remote support options. Ohio University has launched Bobcat Wellness, which provides students with ways to stay healthy, both physically and mentally, during the pandemic. The platform offers fitness classes, meditations, counselling, and crisis support, all offered virtually, as well as a guide for how to be outside safely. It also grants students access to third-party fitness and wellness apps, such as Headspace, Calm, and Virgin Pulse.

Voter Registration

Young people are the largest and most diverse group of potential voters; however, even in a typical election cycle, many students fail. In many states, there are barriers put in place to suppress the student vote. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this is further exacerbated. Some institutions have programs to encourage students to vote and make the registration and voting process easier for them. The Associated Students of Northern Arizona University has worked with Arizona PIRG Students to create a dedicated website, ArizonaStudentVote.org. The school administration put a link to that website in their school-wide app, “Go NAU,” successfully registering 500 voters so far this semester. Over the next few weeks, the school will launch a dedicated website with a nonpartisan voter guide and other resources, and will incorporate voter education into their orientation process and social media platforms.

We recommend that college administrations take similar actions and send out information to their students over text and email, with important deadlines and steps that they need to take to register and to vote. They should also encourage their students to register with studentvote.org and where allowed by state law, place approved ballot dropboxes in accessible areas of campus to make it easy for students to vote safely.

These are just a handful of ways that colleges and universities can support students. But, these programs require investment of time and financial resources to serve at-risk students. We urge campus leaders to implement these programs, and Congress to provide funding to keep them open for the duration of the pandemic.


Zack Szlezinger

Former Field Organizer, Student PIRGs