Breland: How the COVID pandemic is affecting college students
A student sits at a computer at San Jose City College. Photo courtesy of San Jose City College.

A recent article published by San José Spotlight highlighted some of the struggles local college students have faced during the COVID-19 pandemic. While this article focused primarily on the experiences of students at San Jose State University, it is important to note that recent reports indicate that adult students and students of color—two populations disproportionately served by community colleges—have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

The pandemic and its impacts on college students continue to affect enrollment rates, which are expected to record the largest two-year decline in history, according to new data from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. While these impacts are being felt across higher education with every sector experiencing enrollment declines between fall 2019 and fall 2021, the nation’s public community colleges have seen the steepest declines.

Historically, community college enrollment has an inverse relationship with the economy and availability of jobs, but that trend does not appear to be holding true during the COVID-19 pandemic and recovery. In order to combat this troubling shift, community colleges are taking innovative steps to better serve students.

As many students found themselves dealing with uncertainty regarding their own or their family’s health, employment or housing, community colleges across the U.S. stepped up to expand assistance with their students’ basic needs. This work was aided by state and federal funding made available through legislation like the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act and the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund.

This funding allowed college food pantries to continue to provide groceries to hungry students and community members, made technology like laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots available to students at no cost and provided emergency grants to help students pay their living expenses while continuing to pursue their educational and career goals.

Food and housing insecurity pose a significant challenge for community college students in California, with a recent survey indicating that 50% of California community college students experienced food insecurity in the month before they were surveyed and 60% dealt with housing insecurity in the previous year. Students at both San Jose City College and Evergreen Valley College participated in that survey and the results for local students were in some ways even more dire than the statewide data indicates.

At Evergreen Valley College, 45% of respondents were food insecure in the prior 30 days, 60% were housing insecure in the prior year and 15% had been homeless at some time during the previous year. At San Jose City College, those numbers jump to 52%, 68% and 25%, respectively.

When students do not have stable housing and access to enough food, it is even more difficult for them to succeed academically.

At San Jose-Evergreen Community College District we have distributed approximately $11 million in emergency aid from the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund in order to help students remain enrolled and in pursuit of their degree or certificate.

Additionally, more than 500 students have had their debt forgiven, which removes holds from their records and allows them to once again register as students in good standing. With funding for a national program of free community college unlikely to make the final draft of the Biden administration’s Build Back Better proposal, these vital lifelines to students already struggling to stay afloat are even more important.

San José Spotlight columnist Dr. Byron D. Clift Breland is chancellor of San Jose-Evergreen Community College District, which operates San Jose City College, Evergreen Valley College, the Milpitas College Extension and the Community College Center for Economic Mobility. His columns appear every first Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at [email protected]

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