Hector Martinez prepares a bag of food for students from the Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry in Chico. (Jason Halley/University Photographer/CSU Chico)

Most of California’s college students are concerned the coronavirus pandemic will prevent them from graduating.

An Education Trust poll, released Thursday, found 77 percent of college students nationally and 75 percent of California students had concerns about staying on track to graduate because of the coronavirus. And nationally, 84 percent of black and 81 percent of Latino students said they were worried.

Students also said they were struggling to meet basic food, housing and financial needs because of the pandemic, with about half saying they fear not being able to afford basic needs in the coming months. They have struggled with accessing academic and support services online, and they’re finding fewer opportunities to connect with faculty, counselors and other college staff.

All of California’s public colleges and universities moved most classroom instruction online during the pandemic. Asked to evaluate their learning, 43 percent of students said the quality of instruction they are receiving is getting worse and 49 percent say their interest and engagement in coursework is waning.

Despite their concerns, 75 percent of California students said their college was handling the coronavirus well. All of the California students who responded to the poll attend a California State University campus, but EdTrust officials said the results are representative of all students across the state.

The poll also found:

Among California students:

  • 20 percent said they were not confident they would return to school in the fall.
  • 49 percent said they won’’ be able to afford food, housing or tuition.
  • 95 percent said at least some of their classes were canceled; 85 percent said all or most of their classes are now virtual.
  • 42 percent said their college provided alternative housing options through the pandemic.
  • 77 percent of California students are living at home with their parents.

Among students nationwide:

  • 53 percent said they feel uneasy about their personal finances over the coming few months.
  • 68 percent said they are concerned about anxiety, depression and other mental health issues.
  • 36 percent of students say they are worried about developing substance abuse or addiction because of the pandemic.

A group of students, participating in a webinar Thursday unveiling the poll results, endorsed its findings.

“We have to figure out the future of our education and this includes housing situations because we’re not sure what to do and some of us question our academic ability and have the feeling of daunting uncertainty,” said Michael Wiafe, the outgoing president of CSU’s student association and a San Diego State graduate. Wiafe, who will attend UC Berkeley, for graduate school, was the only California student participating in the webinar.

Students are contending with job losses and are unable to support themselves financially. As for housing, many students still have to pay rent if they were leasing from a private owner, despite returning to live with parents or guardians, Wiafe said.

Students, who are also parents, may have lost their jobs and lost access to child care through their campuses when those operations shut down in-person services, Wiafe said.

“Now students have to take care of children while being in class at home and that can be difficult,” he said.

Some faculty have been willing to accommodate students’ needs since the pandemic, Wiafe said, but others feel classes should be more difficult and meet virtually more often because they are now remote.

The national poll questions were completed by 1,010 students online from May 14-19 with most respondents from California and New York. Additional interviewing was done to obtain responses from 312 California students. The national poll had a margin of error of +/-3.1 percent. The California portion has a margin of error of +/-5.6 percent.

The EdTrust poll, conducted in partnership with Global Strategy Group, found students wanted more virtual office hours with faculty and advisers, emergency financial aid and access to food support, mental health services, and alternative housing and child care arrangements:

  • 87 percent said they needed more virtual office hours or way to connect with faculty, while 53 percent said their institutions were already doing this.
  • 83 percent said they needed more career advice and job preparation, with only 31 percent saying their colleges already offered those services.
  • 82 percent said they needed more financial aid.
  • 78 percent said more mental health services and counseling are needed on campuses.
  • 67 percent said they needed more food support or access to pantries, with only 23 percent saying their campuses had this.
  • 62 percent said they needed alternative housing arrangements, with only 14 percent saying their campuses supported that service.

All three public California college systems offer these resources to students, but “what we’re experiencing is an uneven offering,” said Elisha Smith Arrillaga, executive director of EdTrust-West. Most campuses offer some of these services, but not all of them, she said, referring to the 115 California Community Colleges, the 23 CSU campuses and 10 UC campuses.

The Campaign for College Opportunity, an organization that promotes college access, has advocated for a state-wide committee that would coordinate a uniform response to students’ needs across the UC, CSU and community colleges systems, she said.

Monica Lozano, president of the College Futures Foundation, an Oakland-based philanthropic organization that promotes access to higher education, said although the state is facing a $54 billion budget deficit, it could be flexible with financial aid and use the money to support students’ food, transportation and housing needs. Colleges also need to increase their support services and boost online counseling, she said.

“We’re not saying don’t cut higher education,” she said. “But as you cut into the higher education budgets, do it from the point of view of making decisions that don’t harm students along the way.”

For example, Gov. Gavin Newsom proposed in January to give the California community colleges’ food pantries $11.4 million in new money. But since the pandemic caused a state budget deficit, he eliminated the funding in the May revision. Smith Arrillaga said the legislature could instead approve the new money to the food pantries to better support students. The poll found 33 percent of students — and 45 percent of low-income students — reported skipping a meal or reducing how much they are eating because of the pandemic.

There are policy choices that Congress and states could make to invest in college students, said John B. King Jr., EdTrust president, and former education secretary in the Obama administration.

The $3 trillion HEROES (Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions) Act, which was passed by the House of Representatives, includes significant funding that would prevent states like California from making higher education cuts, he said. The bill, written by House Democrats, includes $100 billion for education, of which $37 billion would go to the postsecondary sector, but so far the Republican Senate hasn’t considered it.

“We should at least double Pell Grants,” King said. “We ought to invest in programs like CCAMPIS (Child Care Access Means Parents in School Program). We put very little money into that program, even though 20 percent of college students are parents.” CCAMPIS provides federal funding for on-campus childcare centers.

Food insecurity remains a significant problem for students and is worsened by the pandemic. He said that Congress should create a federal program similar to the free and reduced price meals at the K-12 level, which serve breakfast and lunch in schools to low-income students.

The country has an opportunity to come out of this crisis and “build something better, stronger and a more resilient society,” King said.

Story originally published by EdSource.

Ashley A. Smith, EdSource