California college students fear pandemic will derail graduation, new poll shows

May 28, 2020

Hector Martinez (center) prepares a bag of food for students from the Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry that remains open Monday through Friday, 11 a.m.–2 p.m. and by appointment as the campus community adjusts to suspension of in-person instruction and a stay-at-home order due to impacts of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on Friday, April 3, 2020 in Chico, Calif. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/CSU, Chico)

Most of California’s college students are concerned the coronavirus pandemic will prevent them from graduating.

An Education Trust poll, released Thursday, found 77% of college students nationally and 75% of California students had concerns about staying on track to graduate because of the coronavirus. And nationally, 84% of black and 81% of Latino students said they were worried.

Students also said they were struggling to meet basic food, housing and financial needs because of the pandemic, with about half saying they fear not being able to afford basic needs in the coming months. They have struggled with accessing academic and support services online, and they’re finding fewer opportunities to connect with faculty, counselors and other college staff.

All of California’s public colleges and universities moved most classroom instruction online during the pandemic. Asked to evaluate their learning, 43% of students said the quality of instruction they’re receiving is getting worse and 49% say their interest and engagement in coursework is waning.

Despite their concerns, 75% of California students said their college was handling the coronavirus well. All of the California students who responded to the poll attend a California State University campus, but EdTrust officials said the results are representative of all students across the state.

The poll also found:

Among California students:

Among students nationwide:

A group of students, participating in a webinar Thursday unveiling the poll results, endorsed its findings.

“We have to figure out the future of our education and this includes housing situations because we’re not sure what to do and some of us question our academic ability and have the feeling of daunting uncertainty,” said Michael Wiafe, the outgoing president of CSU’s student association and a San Diego State University graduate. Wiafe, who will attend the University of California, Berkeley, for graduate school, was the only California student participating in the webinar.

Students are contending with job losses and are unable to support themselves financially. As for housing, many students still have to pay rent if they were leasing from a private owner, despite returning to live with parents or guardians, Wiafe said.

Students, who are also parents, may have lost their jobs and lost access to childcare through their campuses when those operations shut down in-person services, Wiafe said.

“Now students have to take care of children while being in class at home and that can be difficult,” he said.

Some faculty have been willing to accommodate students’ needs since the pandemic, Wiafe said, but others feel classes should be more difficult and meet virtually more often because they are now remote.

The national poll questions were completed by 1,010 students online from May 14-19 with most respondents from California and New York. Additional interviewing was done to obtain responses from 312 California students. The national poll had a margin of error of +/-3.1%. The California portion has a margin of error of +/-5.6%.

The EdTrust poll, conducted in partnership with Global Strategy Group, found students wanted more virtual office hours with faculty and advisors, emergency financial aid and access to food support, mental health services, and alternative housing and child care arrangements:

All three public California college systems offer these resources to students, but “what we’re experiencing is an uneven offering,” said Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of EdTrust-West. Most campuses offer some of these services, but not all of them, she said, referring to the 115 California Community Colleges, the 23 CSU campuses and 10 UC campuses.

The Campaign for College Opportunity, an organization that promotes college access, has advocated for a state-wide committee that would coordinate a uniform response to students’ needs across the UC, CSU and community colleges systems, she said.

Monica Lozano, president of the College Futures Foundation, an Oakland-based philanthropic organization that promotes access to higher education, said although the state is facing a $54 billion budget deficit, it could be flexible with financial aid and use the money to support students’ food, transportation and housing needs. Colleges also need to increase their support services and boost online counseling, she said.

“We’re not saying don’t cut higher education,” she said. “But as you cut into the higher education budgets, do it from the point of view of making decisions that don’t harm students along the way.”

For example, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed in January to give the California community colleges’ food pantries $11.4 million in new money. But since the pandemic caused a state budget deficit, he eliminated the funding in the May revision. Smith Arrillaga said the legislature could instead approve the new money to the food pantries to better support students. The poll found 33% of students — and 45% of low-income students — reported skipping a meal or reducing how much they are eating because of the pandemic.

There are policy choices that Congress and states could make to invest in college students, said John B. King Jr., EdTrust president, and former education secretary in the Obama administration.

The $3 trillion HEROES (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions) Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives, includes significant funding that would prevent states like California from making higher education cuts, he said. The bill, written by House Democrats, includes $100 billion for education, of which $37 billion would go to the postsecondary sector, but so far the Republican Senate hasn’t considered it.

“We should at least double Pell Grants,” King said. “We ought to invest in programs like CCAMPIS (Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program). We put very little money into that program, even though 20% of college students are parents.” CCAMPIS provides federal funding for on-campus childcare centers.

Food insecurity remains a significant problem for students and is worsened by the pandemic. He said that Congress should create a federal program similar to the free and reduced price meals at the K-12 level, which serve breakfast and lunch in schools to low-income students.

The country has an opportunity to come out of this crisis and “build something better, stronger and a more resilient society,” King said.

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