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Keep Our Students Enrolled

by Paula Umaña
April 27, 2020

Paula Umaña is the Community Impact Director at the Hope Center.  Prior to this role, Umaña worked at Community College of Philadelphia as the director of Single Stop, a service that is geared towards increasing student retention by providing assistance in navigating and obtaining additional financial resources and supportive services. 

What is the overall mission of the Hope Center and what are your main goals?

Hope Center is an action research center focused on rethinking and restructuring higher education using a systemic change approach to create opportunities for all students to complete their education. We believe that students are humans first. Through research we bring light to the basic needs and insecurities they face including housing, food, childcare, transportation, and mental health services. 

We also work to redefine the framing of what it means to be a student-ready college through the #RealCollege movement, which grounds the conversation in real experiences of  real college students.  We use this term to talk about what people label as  "marginalized" or "underserved" students, to acknowledge that the issues students face are not unique to a specific group. The economics of college are very different from what many perceive (not to mention the effect of the pandemic), and those labels fail to dignify students’ experience in dealing with a system that does not set them up for success. We designed an instrument to understand what life looks like for college students and have collected data for five years. In our latest report, we surveyed more than 400 public institutions, including both community colleges and four year universities.

From the 360,000 students that participated in the survey, we know that 39% of them are food insecure, 46% are housing insecure, and 17% were homeless in the year previous to when they took the survey.

How have things changed for the organization since COVID? 

Since COVID, of course, these needs have not gone away, they just were compounded by this crisis. In response, we are being very vocal about the need for policies that make sense. We have designed guides and webinars as resources for colleges to help them plan strategically so students remain enrolled and able to return. We also created resources for students to help them cope with the crisis and connect with assistance that they likely did not anticipate they would need. This is a new field for everyone. Demonstrating that we care for our students will be fundamental to help them have both a sense of belonging and as well as the ability to remain in school and complete their education so they can be better equipped to join the workforce.

I cannot stress enough how important it is to focus our efforts on making sure that the students who are currently enrolled, can remain enrolled, and that the students who are going to enroll, get the proper support. It will dictate how colleges will be perceived by their communities in the future. 

Our life at the Center changed completely with the pandemic. Prior to the quarantine, we were working to release some reports, including analyses on interesting initiatives that are running on campuses like meal vouchers and transportation. We just released “Hungry to Win” a report that looks at athlete students' basic needs and insecurities, and we have released a report on students who are parents. We really want to understand how the crisis affects students at all of these different levels. And again, we are not just looking at Pell Grant recipients, or students who fall into the traditional buckets of need for additional support. We are looking at #RealCollege students who are sacrificing to get their education up to a level where they can make livable wages.

And what do situations look like for those students? 

We know that the college students that colleges are dealing with now, are not the stereotypical 18 to 22 year olds who live with their parents, and come to school with parental support. When a college closes, not everyone is able to go back home and take their classes online on their computers. Prior to COVID, a third of students lived on campus. Those students may or may not be able to have shelter in place.

When a college closes on campus housing, there is an implicit assumption made that the students have other options for secure housing, but that is not always the case.

We are advocating for colleges to create partnerships, offer emergency aid, and help students strategize alternatives. When I was working at Community College of Philadelphia, I worked with students whose housing insecurity was so prevailing that we would spend weeks to help them secure sustainable options and provide resources to help them  create a safety net so they could finish their degree and even look into transfering to a four year institution where they could have room and boarding. For colleges like CCP that have no on campus housing, that possibility does not exist for them, which makes the work harder.

The reality of food insecurity has become evident through this crisis. You see endless lines at food pantries on the news. We are very strongly pushing out information about food stamps because students often don’t know that they can qualify and get a monthly benefit in an easy to use card. Recently the Food and Nutrition Service denied the requests from 29 states to waive certain requirements to support college students in getting food stamps. We were vocal and made a statement denouncing this position because, now more than ever, the modest sum of money that food stamps offer can help students with food security needs. 

Based on our research findings, 64% of students work. The jobs that allow them to accommodate their schedule and family lives are often service industry jobs. And if they are in these jobs, now, they can’t work because many of these businesses had to close during the quarantine. Before COVID, students already had to make very hard financial choices: whether to buy a book or whether to eat, whether to pay rent or pay tuition. Financial aid doesn't always cover the real cost of college. The assumption that the cost of attendance is just tuition and college fees is unrealistic. The biggest price tags of attending college are housing and food. Not to mention that not everyone has access to a computer, not everyone has internet access. When you don't have income, when you don't have a way to pay your phone, which is how many students get their homework done, when you don't have wifi because you cannot go to campus to get free wifi or the library because they're closed, then how are you supposed to get a good grade, keep your financial aid, and continue with your studies?  

We are dealing with a very complex situation right now. How do we best support and keep students enrolled, when all of their basic needs are on the line?

What do you anticipate the lasting impact of this will be? What will carry over once this is behind us, and what do you anticipate the work will need to be?

College was not affordable for 75% of the students attending before COVID. That means that students need to take out loans to make it - not always in significant amounts because we aren't talking about Ivy League students. But if they drop out or are unable to pay for tuition because they have no income, their ability to repay those loans will be compromised. When the economy is shut down, when students are living or reliving traumatic experiences, when they are uncertain and have no control over the circumstances, their outlook of their possibilities will look markedly different. 

The situation with parenting students is also very worrisome. There are some support systems to help students pay for expenses associated with their children’s care, but right now, none of those systems are in place because of the quarantine, so students have to perform these functions while doing homework, learning how to navigate online classes, and managing their children’s educational needs. And students who are parents of older children are also experiencing their own set of traumas. These children are also trying to figure out how their transition to college will look like, are trying to cope with the social factor and, in many situations, are questioning if college is even an option once they graduate from high school. This uncertainty of what life is going to look like takes a huge toll on people's mental health and on people's ability to cope with what is coming next.

And then there is the question about the ability to access healthcare. You have different systems, not everyone qualifies or knows how to get Medicaid, or much less understand how the special enrollment period can grant them access to coverage through  the marketplace. There are a few states that have opened their marketplace exchange, but there is not enough publicity about it. We have people who had health issues prior to COVID, and their issues are being exacerbated by the pandemic. You have domestic violence going on. How do you deal with students who are in a housing situation where domestic violence is jeopardizing their wellbeing and they don't have a campus to go to, to talk to a counselor and get support. So it's a very complex moment, indeed.

With everything moved online for the foreseeable future, are students receiving what they're paying for? And how can that be addressed?

With the stimulus package, $14 billion is directed towards higher education. $1 billion goes to minority serving institutions, $300 million goes to colleges directly affected by the coronavirus, and $12 billion goes to colleges.

Let's take California for example. $1.7 billion dollars is going to the state. When institutions look at how they will maximize these dollars to help students, it is important that they consider not only those who are graduating, but also those returning to school or enrolling for the first time. We recently put together an emergency aid guide to provide pointers to colleges on how to best distribute funds in a sustainable way that makes sense, especially for those who are not captured by the financial aid markers. 

In these times, higher education institutions have to really prove their adaptability to properly respond to this crisis. They have to move online. They have to deploy computers to students, create that infrastructure, and work with faculty who are used to teaching their classes physically. On top of all of that, they have to sort out giving aid and creating a system of prioritizing and identifying who needs it. Our guide addresses how to best distribute aid. Is it just cutting checks? Is it using only the data that the financial aid officers have on who receives Pell? 

Part of what we address is, how can you give the aid to people who are finishing the semester and bring them back to school in August. What do you do with that financial aid and emergency aid money so that students in August know that they can come to school? New college enrollees should also have access to some of the aid so get started with their education. The financial aid that is going to be distributed needs to help everyone across the board in a sustainable way. We cannot just give cash out as it comes, and have colleges burn through it by the end of summer. Our guide talks about making decisions that are sustainable and that address not only the needs of those identified by the Pell Grant, or those who are qualified as "low income", or those who are captured in the system, but also to those who are not captured by the system. 

Is there a component of this that we're overlooking that you think would be a mistake to sort of not give extra attention to?

Right now, public benefits do not take into consideration college students in a way that considers their reality. In a majority of the country, students have to work in order to get food stamps, they cannot just be full time students. The same goes in certain states for Medicaid. I think that we're missing out on the whole possibility of creating a very base layer of support for college students with public benefits.