After last year’s COVID-19 pandemic, more than 40% of University of Hawaii students wondered if they would run out of food before they got money to buy more.
That’s according to a recent survey by the University of Hawaii and the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, which examined the economic uncertainty of two- and four-year-old students at the state’s flagship university.
The survey, conducted in September, found that 58% of UH students reported a lack of basic necessities including food and shelter. A quarter said they were hungry but didn’t eat anything because they didn’t have enough money. Around 14 to 15 percent said they were homeless.
“The numbers are actually pretty shocking,” said Albie Miles, assistant professor of Sustainable Community Food Systems at UH West Oahu who chairs the university’s basic needs committee. “We’re talking about tens of thousands of students potentially in the entire UH system.”
The university was already concerned about meeting basic student needs in 2019 when President David Lassner founded the committee. The pandemic exacerbated student economic troubles at the national level, and Miles said UH was no different.
“I think it’s some kind of hidden crisis in higher education and we have to take it very seriously because it can affect a student’s ability to stay in college, perform well, and graduate,” said Miles.
The committee is in the process of developing a master plan for the university to meet basic needs, including childcare, transportation and mental health services. A short-term goal is to increase student awareness of available support, including through a website that connects students to resources.
What the survey found
The survey found that not all UH students were equally in need. Students with children were far more likely to have economic problems than students without parents.
First-generation college students also had higher basic needs uncertainties than students whose family members were in college. Students who received Pell Scholarships also struggled more hard to meet their basic needs than non-Pell Scholars.
Four-year-old students who identified themselves as “other races” or “blacks” reported higher rates of basic need insecurity than students of other races and ethnic groups. Two-year students who were Pacific Islanders reported greater challenges in meeting their basic needs than two-year students of other ethnicities.
Miles noted that the survey had a limited sample size but reflected national trends. More than 48,000 students received the survey, but just over 1,000 responded with a response rate of 2.1%.
Only 3% of students said they were infected with COVID-19, but nearly a quarter said they have a close friend or family member who had the coronavirus. More than 70% said they could not concentrate on school and more than 40% said they were afraid.
The results of the poll were for Alex Bitters, the chairman of the Organizing committee for university graduates.
Last March, in the wake of the COVID-19 shutdown orders, his group set up an emergency cash program for students. Between March and May, he said, they gave about $ 5,000 to 50 students. The group stopped funding after UH set up a federal dollar relief fund.
Bitters recalls hearing from students who had to support their families, both their children and parents, when the widespread job loss spread across Hawaii.
“It just underscores that we are not paying service workers enough,” Bitters said of the survey results, noting that many students are service and university workers. “It’s no excuse that as a student you don’t need a lot of money and you are not entitled to a living wage.”
In a statement, the university president said: “It is extremely worrying that two in five students will be hungry by 2020.”
Bitters called this reaction “spineless”.
“For those students who are hungry, I think it’s a little more than a concern for them,” he said.
He said it would help solve the problem of economic uncertainty if students could unionize workers, raise wages, and provide affordable student housing.
Miles, of the university’s Basic Needs Committee, said the issues raised by the survey would be difficult to resolve because they mirrored systemic societal problems.
“It was an untenable situation before (the pandemic) and was made worse by the crisis,” he said.
However, he said that finding that 58% of students did not know how to apply for campus support, and therefore did not, highlighted an opportunity for improvement.
“We will never be able to solve this problem on our own, “Miles said, but” we can increase the percentage of students who are aware of the assets we create and the assets in their community. “
The survey found that 55% of UH students who suffered from basic needs insecurity reported receiving public support. But many others who were entitled to help did not get it.
Miles said California is channeling tens of millions of dollars to improve college student economic uncertainty while Hawaii lacks such funds.
“We are currently tight on funds,” he said, adding that his committee is talking to UH about possible solutions. “I just think it’s important that we take this issue seriously because it has a negative impact on the lives of many young people.”
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