No Home, No Wi-Fi: Pandemic Adds to Strain on Poor College Students

Mr. Sawyer, who wants to become a pastor, is using his time off to work for civil rights organizations and to fund-raise so that he can re-enroll in the spring and obtain a doctorate in theology. “It’s definitely a delay, but sometimes stumbling blocks come,” he said.

Many students like Mr. Sawyer have been looking for alternative ways to pay for their education. As the coronavirus was closing campuses this past spring, Rise, a student-led organization that advocates college affordability, created an online network to help students find emergency financial aid, apply for public benefits and locate food pantries.

Rise has continued to serve more than 1,000 students a month who are struggling with issues like paying rent, losing their jobs and lacking internet access, said Max Lubin, the organization’s chief executive. “We’re overwhelmed by the need,” he said.

Stable housing and healthy food were already major concerns before the pandemic. A 2019 survey found that 17 percent of college students had experienced homelessness in the past year, and about half reported issues such as difficulty paying rent or utilities. Nearly 40 percent lacked reliable access to nutritious food.

The coronavirus crisis worsened many of these challenges, according to a June report by the Hope Center, which found that nearly three out of five students surveyed had trouble affording basic needs during the pandemic.

Financial aid in the United States had already been stretched thin by the rising costs of tuition, room and board. At their maximum, need-based federal Pell grants cover just 28 percent of the total cost of attending a public college today, compared with more than half of that cost in the 1980s. State aid, while recovering somewhat since the Great Recession, still falls short of need, and state budgets have been further drained by the health crisis.

The CARES Act, passed by Congress in March, provided about $14 billion for higher education, with about half earmarked for students. But there were limits on who could receive it, and college students were ineligible for the $1,200 stimulus check that went to taxpayers.

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