We’ve long known that the pandemic affects different groups of students and different types of institutions differently. A new survey
of thousands of students at historically Black colleges gives us a clearer glimpse of just how acutely these past couple of years have affected them.
For one, Covid-19 directly impacted them and their families. One out of four of the 5,000 students surveyed said a friend or family member of theirs had died from the virus.
The students also reported food and housing challenges during the pandemic: 46% said they were food insecure, with limited nutritional food available, and 55% said they did not have access to affordable and safe housing. Those problems were even more likely to be reported by students who were parents, women, low-income, or identified as LGBTQ.
The survey was conducted by The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice as well as the Center for Historically Black Colleges & Universities at Virginia Union University. It was done in part to understand basic needs and pandemic challenges HBCU students faced during fall 2020.
Terrell Strayhorn, one of the report researchers and provost and senior vice president at Virginia Union University, says the research offers an updated understanding of what students are going through.
“We start by knowing that there are racialized inequities in the system of higher education,” Strayhorn says. “But what I think we learned from the report is how those pre-existing conditions were exacerbated and made more complicated, and in some cases heightened, by other aspects of the pandemic.”
HBCUs serve students who are first-generation or low-income and many lost their jobs or did not have access to healthcare, Strayhorn said.
By revealing the depth of students’ challenges with basic needs, the survey is painting a clearer picture for colleges of what might get in the way of their students’ performance.
“We have pretty incredible science that shows their ability to deeply engage and to focus and direct their attention is hijacked because they’re distracted by these fundamental needs,” Strayhorn says. “These factors get in the way of their success. We’ve got to keep that on the radar.”
Along with the study, the Hope Center and the Center for the Study of HBCUs launched a coalition
called #RealCollegeHBCU. The coalition will work with 10 HBCUs to address students’ needs, enrollment declines, and other institutional services. Each partnered university will have data-driven training sessions.
In the past, the Hope Center worked with HBCUs in Virginia along with state government to create a pilot program that offered wraparound support services from housing to food to childcare to transportation, all in an effort to help students continue school.
“Talking to a lot of students I’ve heard so many stories about life getting in the way and they might not be able to finish their credentials,” says Atif Qarni, the managing director for external affairs at The Hope Center.
Institutions need to be creative in finding ways to help students in a more holistic manner, he said.
Together, the coalition will work with historically Black college partners to review their own institutional policies and advocate for more state and national level support. For example, Strayhorn said, the coalition can offer technical assistance to work with partnered universities in allocating federal resources and emergency aid to address student needs.