As the coronavirus (COVID-19) quickly spread across the United States, millions of college students received an urgent, startling request: pack up and leave campus indefinitely.
Even as they recognized the public health imperative, many were left worried about paying for transportation home, completing online courses without reliable internet access, and staying focused on classes in such an anxious, tumultuous time.
As the pandemic prompts new reckoning about how schools can deliver quality, virtual education, we must also understand that unequal access to students’ basic needs – food, housing, transportation, financial assistance and counseling – can have severe consequences on academic performance, especially for students from traditionally marginalized communities.
Mental and emotional health, in particular, have a strong relationship with academic outcomes: the American Council on Education’s Healthy Minds Survey found that across all types of college and university campuses, students struggling with mental health were twice as likely to leave without graduating.
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, 51 percent of students are experiencing mental health distress. Nine in 10 college and university presidents list the mental health of their students as their top concern, but fewer than two in 10 have invested in more mental or physical health resources. Of the large majority who have yet to invest, less than half say they expect to do so down the road.
Even in normal times, two- and four-year institutions have struggled to appropriately fund counseling centers, despite growing concern from chief student affairs officers. In an analysis of 39 large universities, The Associated Press found the number of students receiving mental health treatment grew by 35 percent between 2014 and 2019, but the number of licensed counselors had yet to catch up. On some campuses, there was only one counselor for every 4,000 students.
Experts predict the pandemic will have long-term consequences for higher education budgets. When colleges have to make hard decisions, services like mental health and well-being programming are typically the first thing on the chopping block.
Given that in-person classes may not fully resume by the fall semester, institutions should embrace virtual mental health tools and resources as one accessible and affordable option to keep supporting students from a distance. These supports have shown to be effective at improving students’ mental and emotional health, with some schools introducing their own virtual resources and text hotlines for students in crisis.
All campus staff – not just college counselors – should communicate regularly and compassionately about the mental health resources available. Students should also be encouraged to share these with friends, given that 67 percent of college students will first tell a friend if they are feeling suicidal.
To help alleviate some of the academic stress, Active Minds – a nonprofit organization focused on student mental health – also recommends institutions provide alternative, personalized grading options during the pandemic, such as allowing students to select a pass / fail grade in lieu of letter grades.
Outside organizations can also fill gaps where university funding and capacity fall short. Even before launching the Basic Needs Initiative to support institutions researching how best to holistically support students and develop scalable programs, the ECMC Foundation awarded a grant to Active Minds. That funding provided dedicated support to 15 Minority Serving- and Hispanic Serving Institutions, which have continued to provide individual counseling and crisis consultation via phone or video chat and expanded website resource listings since the outbreak.
And with financial insecurity a significant factor for students’ mental health, ECMC’s College Access Centers are helping families make proactive and informed decisions about planning and paying for college, working with them to build tailored plans that will minimize financial anxieties down the road.
State and federal lawmakers have already taken steps in ensuring students have access to essential resources during the pandemic. Under the CARES Act, the Department of Education distributed $6 billion to colleges and universities to help students affected by the outbreak with expenses related to health care, housing, food and child care. However, the assistance formula excluded Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) students, international students and students enrolled solely in online courses prior to the pandemic.
As they put additional funding behind their response, lawmakers must ensure that all educational institutions have the resources needed to not just maintain but expand their basic needs offerings, especially counseling for their most vulnerable students.
From health care to supply chains to higher education, the coronavirus pandemic has exposed cracks in our social framework that leave millions of Americans vulnerable. Two months after campuses started going virtual, one such crack that has become even more apparent is the patchwork of mental and emotional health and other basic needs resources available to college students struggling to focus on their education.
In the weeks and months ahead, schools, lawmakers and nonprofits have a shared responsibility to make access to education and basic needs support more equitable – not just during the pandemic, but for the generations to come.
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