Beyond Tuition: Supporting Students’ Basic Needs During COVID-19

By Elizabeth Salinas and Danielle Zaragoza -

As COVID-19 continues to impact students, teachers, families, colleges, and universities across the country, HCM Strategists is working to provide essential thought leadership on the range of issues in the field of education.

Our expert policy staff has launched a new series to identify emerging education policy ideas and practices aimed at addressing COVID-19. Stay tuned for more in HCM’s new series addressing COVID-19 concerns in education, and use #EdAfterCOVID19 to join the conversation on social media. Read more

Within a few months, the COVID-19 global pandemic has dramatically changed higher education in the United States. We will undoubtedly continue to see the effects of COVID-19 long after college campuses reopen and we return to some semblance of normalcy.

Of course, no other group in higher education has been implicated by this shuffle more than students. As concerns about COVID-19 ramped up, and colleges began to face the reality of having to close for the rest of the semester, students were faced with a significant level of uncertainty. They had to manage their fears about COVID-19 itself like the rest of us. But for many students, the realities went well beyond packing up their dorms and figuring out how best to get home. A significant number of students did not have a home or residence to return to; their home was their dorm. Even more students faced uncertainty about their access to food, which was available to them through on-campus dining. And with the transition to online instruction, where they once could go to the college library or other on-campus computer labs, many students were suddenly faced with questions about how they would access computers and the internet to simply keep up with their learning. In fact, a considerable number of students were left without access to these basic resources. The Hope Center found that nearly three in five college students experienced basic needs insecurity in April and May. By comparison, before the health crisis, about half of community college students and one-third of students at four-year institutions were affected by food or housing insecurity.

Indeed, the truth is that COVID-19 did not create these risks for students. These vulnerabilities in students’ access to basic needs have always been a problem. The pandemic has merely exposed these vulnerabilities, bringing to light the inequities that disproportionately affect traditionally underserved students. Much as COVID-19 has shined a spotlight on long-established health disparities, it has underscored some of the very real challenges students were already dealing with before the pandemic.

College students, like all Americans, are in dire need of some financial relief during this time. Students of color and low-income students are especially vulnerable. However, institutions are increasingly strapped for resources. Worse still, the institutions that tend to serve more vulnerable students face more significant financial challenges. Again, this is not a new problem, but rather a challenge the postsecondary community has been aware of and trying to address for years. So how can institutions support their most vulnerable students during this crisis when they are also facing financial uncertainty?

HCM has been tracking how states and university systems are responding to COVID-19 across various education-related areas. College affordability is one issue of particular interest for us.

In a forthcoming blog, we will discuss efforts by states, systems and institutions to provide emergency financial aid to students in response to the pandemic. For example, many institutions have set up emergency relief funds for students dealing with financial hardships in the pandemic. We will also be paying attention to how institutions distribute federal funds for direct emergency grants to students and to the guidance states provide to institutions about allocating those dollars.

In the meantime, we have captured other innovative efforts by states, systems and institutions to support students financially. We have seen some efforts to support students with general affordability issues. Some highlights include the following:

  • Many systems and universities opted to give students a full or partial refund for unused housing and dining credits.
  • The Bank of North Dakota is allowing those affected by COVID-19 to defer student loan payments.
  • Georgia borrowers participating in any state loan program administered by the Georgia Student Finance Authority automatically received a 60-day administrative forbearance.
  • The state of New York temporarily halted the collection of student loan debt owed to the state and referred to the Office of the Attorney General for collection.
  • The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education announced it is deferring scheduled repayments through its No-Interest Loan Program for four months.
  • The University of California is offering student debt relief to alumni in response to the coronavirus pandemic, suspending interest and payments. Borrowers will automatically have the interest on their loans waived through Sept. 30, but they must choose to postpone their payments temporarily.
  • The University of Oregon will stop assessing all interest and billing fees on overdue student billing accounts.
  • The University of Minnesota has frozen tuition for the next academic year.

We have also identified efforts to address specific non-tuition expenses.


Millions of college students are raising children while they pursue their postsecondary credentials. One additional challenge for this student population during this crisis is having to manage their own studies while also being a primary support for their children, who are now also at home after their own schools were shuttered. While the childcare efforts we identified are not all direct institutional efforts, they can certainly affect students with children.

  • All CUNY childcare centers have remained open.
  • The state of New York will provide childcare scholarships to essential workers. Childcare costs will be covered for essential staff whose income is less than 300% of the federal poverty level, or $78,600 for a family of four. Essential workers (including healthcare providers, law enforcement, food delivery workers and grocery store employees) can use these scholarships to pay for their existing childcare arrangements.

Food and Housing

As coronavirus-related unemployment began to rise, so did the concern for many Americans about being able to pay rent. Similarly, as colleges began to announce closures, an immediate problem many college students had to solve was their housing and meal situation. Food and housing insecurity is very common among college students. In fact, according to a study by the HOPE Lab that surveyed 43,000 students from 66 institutions in 20 states and the District of Columbia, 36% of students were food-insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey, 36% were housing-insecure in the past year, and another 9% of students were homeless. So providing continued access to food and housing has been a way that institutions have helped their students during the outbreak.

  • In general, many institutions have allowed students to stay on campus though the end of the semester if they could not return home or did not have other housing options. On-campus food pantries and most dining options were also made available for these students.
  • New Mexico State University operates a food pantry that has remained operational during the semester with weekly food distribution.
  • Georgia State University has been providing meal services to students living in university housing. Students are able to pick up a to-go box along with a drink and wrapped plasticware.

These quick-response strategies are providing critical supports to students with immediate needs. However, many of these solutions are temporary. For example, while many institutions have allowed students to remain on campus, those accommodations won’t necessarily be extended through the summer. Longer-term supports will be essential to ensuring that students can persist in their degree programs.

As we mentioned, COVID-19 has highlighted some unique challenges students were already facing before the coronavirus pandemic hit. The outbreak has certainly made students’ needs more urgent and immediate, but the need for supports has been there for years. Similarly, efforts by the postsecondary community to address that need precede COVID-19.

Last fall, HCM Strategists conducted a scan of efforts by states, systems and institutions to support students with three specific non-tuition expenses: childcare, food, and housing. We developed an issue brief that outlines a sampling of the efforts identified in HCM’s scan. We hope that this issue brief will inform leaders in their work to support the students they serve, both during the coronavirus crisis and beyond.

Read the full brief here.

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