Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, thousands of Philadelphia families were spending way too much of their income on rent, and their budgets left little room for groceries. Yet they put in long hours at work and sent their children to school, hoping that more education would translate into brighter futures.
There’s good reason to put stock in that strategy. High school graduation rates are higher than ever, and in January Mayor Jim Kenney made increasing college attendance and graduation a central goal of his second term. Critically, he explicitly recognized the need to help more students get not only to college, but also through college; after all, more than 170,000 Philadelphians have started college but haven’t finished. Many are repaying student debt without credentials to show for it.
We have to recognize that financial hardships—including food and housing insecurity—are a key reason why. Poverty does not stop when students begin college.
In fall 2019, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice surveyed more than 5,600 students at five Philadelphia colleges and universities. According to a new report of our findings, more than half of 2-year college students and around one-third of university students were experiencing food and/or housing insecurity. Nearly one in five respondents at two-year colleges were homeless at some point in the previous year. These rates are almost double the prevalence in the general Philadelphia population. That makes sense, since today’s students face high costs of living, get relatively little financial aid, have limited time for work, and receive little support from the frayed social safety net.
The COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating these challenges. Lifeline supports including jobs, on-campus housing, access to dining halls and food pantries, child care, and off-campus employment have largely dried up. Many Philadelphia college students are caretakers of young children and/or live in vulnerable households. Some of the solutions offered to keep students connected to schools and needed services during this time—such as reliable broadband internet—remains elusive for many. And despite a moratorium on legal evictions, reports of illegal evictions in Philadelphia rose threefold in the past month, per Community Legal Services.
To address some basic needs during this crisis, the City has distributed more than one million meals for K-12 students and their families, giving 32,000 food boxes weekly at 40 sites throughout the city, establishing three centralized meal sites, and providing diapers for low-income families with infants. But these efforts do not reach all Philadelphia college students, some of whom did not receive stimulus payments.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf announced a plan for student loan payment relief through September. And the CARES Act, passed by Congress last month, will provide some critical funds for higher education institutions to address students’ basic needs. But their efficacy depends on effective distribution. Moreover, the benefits of the CARES Act do not extend to undocumented or international students, nor dependent students estranged from family and unable to file FAFSA.
These emergency responses will help minimize the trauma and disruption faced Philadelphia college students in the short term. But we have to go further. With its new #RealCollegePHL initiative, funded by the Lenfest Foundation, the Hope Center and the Mayor’s Office are aiming to use partnerships to reduce students’ living expenses, connect them to public benefits programs, and ensure that flexible emergency aid is available to students citywide. Before COVID-19, the #RealCollege survey showed that just 14% of Philadelphia college students who were food insecure received support from SNAP. Having learned from this crisis how to be innovative and nimble, we can develop creative new programs to reduce food insecurity, provide cost-effective housing options, and reduce the burden of transportation costs.
Most critically, every college and university needs to deploy supports that go beyond food pantries to get every student to graduation.
In other words, we must recognize that the supports emerging during this pandemic are long overdue and shouldn’t end once we are past the worst of the pandemic. Bringing them to every student and family who needs them will help to lift our city out of poverty, and set us on track to a healthier future.
Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab is the Founding Director of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University. Eva Gladstein is the Deputy Managing Director of Health and Human Services for the City of Philadelphia.