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Report Analyzes Effects of COVID-19 on Texas Students’ Mental Health, Employment and Basic Needs Insecurity

After working and saving up money, Marco Flores was able to experience on-campus living at Paul Quinn College for the first time last spring.

However, once spring break arrived, students were unable to return to campus due to the health concerns around COVID-19.

Dr. Sara Goldrick-RabDr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

He went from having access to institutional resources to lacking his own space and sleeping on the couch in his family home.

“It was pretty difficult to just focus and do my classwork,” said Flores, a sophomore at Paul Quinn College. “Another thing, I would help my father with his landscaping business. I started to feel the need to help him more and started prioritizing work over school.”

Due to mounting bills and home responsibilities, he is unable to live on campus for the upcoming fall semester.

“Institutions can help students through this transition by accommodating these students that won’t be returning back on campus,” said Flores. “They are opting out for fully remote experience…They aren’t dropping out. They aren’t giving up on their career. They are just trying to work with what they have.”

With other students sharing similar stories, the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice researched the impact of COVID-19 on higher education institutions and its students in Texas through the lens of employment, enrollment, mental health and basic needs insecurity.

The report, “#RealCollege2021: Basic Needs Insecurity Among Texas College Students During the Ongoing Pandemic,” analyzed around 13,000 student responses from 14 colleges and universities within the state between September and November 2020.

“Basic needs insecurity stems from systematic, structural challenges,” said Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, president and founder of the Hope Center. “Basic needs insecurity is not the characteristic of an individual student.”

Unemployment has affected over 10 million Americans during the pandemic. In April 2020, rates reached 13.5% or 300,000 people in Texas, the research found.

For community college students with a prior full-time job, 35% became unemployed while 26% received a pay cut or fewer hours. Comparably, for part-time positions, 44% of community college students lost their job, according to the report.

Using survey respondents from three historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs)—Paul Quinn College, Prairie View A&M University and Texas Southern University—47% of their students lost their full-time job while 57% of part-time workers became jobless. Additionally, compared to White students, Black students with a part-time job had a 9% higher chance of being out of work or facing a pay or hours reduction.

However, disparities exist across the board, especially when it comes to basic needs insecurity and mental health.

Dr. Russell Lowery-HartDr. Russell Lowery-Hart

Among the participants, 65% experienced basic needs insecurity including 43% being affected by food insecurity, 55% by housing insecurity and 16% by homelessness. There was also a 14% basic needs gap between Black and White students, according to the report.

As for health, 8% of students contracted COVID-19 while 49% had a loved one become sick. Black students were twice as likely as White students to lose a family member or close friend to COVID-19, while Latinx students were 15% more likely, the research found.

At the three sampled HBCUs—Paul Quinn, Prairie View A&M University and Texas Southern University—one quarter of students had a close friend or family member die from the virus, according to the report.

Not only did COVID-19 impact students’ physical health, but it also impacted their mental health.

Among Texas students, 33% experienced anxiety and held similar rates of depression. However, Indigenous students experienced anxiety and depression at higher rates. Over two in five Indigenous students faced mental health challenges, according to the research.

“We have so much work to do to ensure our students of color and LGBTQIA students are safe and comfortable, seeking the supports we offer and have to find ways to deliver those supports without requiring students to take the psychological and/or physical risks to seeking help,” said Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart, president of Amarillo College.

While students struggled to adjust to learning during a pandemic, colleges and universities faced enrollment and funding challenges.

The transition to online learning, health concerns and cost of college resulted in a decline of enrollment at Texas institutions and across the country. Within the state, colleges lost around 30,000 new or returning students—equating to over 2.1%—from fall 2019 to fall 2020. Community colleges in Texas experienced an 8% decline, according to the report.

Even before COVID-19, institutions in Texas faced limited funding. From 2008 to 2019, funding for students declined by 24% compared to 11% across the country. At public universities in the state, were forced to reduce their budgets by 5% in 2020-2021.

However, over the past year through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, the Consolidated Appropriations Act and the American Rescue Plan, around $77 billion was allocated to higher education institutions. Those in Texas received close to $6 billion.

To rebuild the higher education sector more equitably in the future, the report provided recommendations at both the state and federal government level.

At the state level, Texas can expand Medicaid eligibility, be transparent around public program eligibility and authorize legislation funding for emergency aid grants and “hunger-free” campuses, according to the report.

Nationally, the report advocated for the creation of affordable housing programs, authorizing the use of the national school lunch program in higher education and funding federal childcare programs.

“At the Hope Center, we are very interested in seeing the response throughout Texas higher education to both the need and the opportunity…,” said Goldrick-Rab, who is also a professor of sociology and medicine at Temple University. “If we want these dollars to last after the pandemic and become a major permanent part of the higher education infrastructure, Texas is going to have to spend the money and create real changes for students.”

Sarah Wood can be reached at [email protected].

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