After the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, more than 40% of University of Hawaii undergraduates wondered whether their food would run out before they got money to buy more.

That’s according to a newly released survey by the University of Hawaii and Hope Center for College, Community and Justice that examines the economic insecurity of two-year and four-year students at the state’s flagship university.

The survey, which was conducted in September, found that 58% of UH students reported some sort of basic needs shortages including food and housing. A quarter said they were hungry but didn’t eat because there wasn’t enough money for food. About 14% to 15% said they experienced homelessness.

Aerial view of the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus. (bottom of frame).
About 58% of students at UH Manoa reported being short of basic needs, like food or housing. That’s potentially tens of thousands of students. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“The numbers are actually quite shocking,” said Albie Miles, assistant professor of sustainable community food systems at UH West Oahu who leads the university’s Basic Needs Committee. “We’re talking about tens of thousands of students potentially across the UH system.”

The university already was concerned about whether students were getting their basic needs met in 2019 when President David Lassner formed the committee. The pandemic exacerbated economic woes nationally for students, and Miles said UH was no different.

“I think it’s kind of a hidden crisis in higher education and we need to take it very seriously because it can impact a student’s ability to remain in college, to perform well and to graduate,” Miles said.

The committee is in the midst of completing a master plan for the university to address basic needs, which also include child care, transportation and mental health services. One short-term goal is to increase students’ awareness of available support, including through a website that connects students to resources.

What The Survey Found

The survey found not all UH students were experiencing hardship equally. Students with children were far more likely to experience economic problems than non-parenting students.

First-generation college students also had higher rates of basic needs insecurity than students who had family members who attended college. Students who received Pell Grants also struggled more to get their basic needs met than non-Pell Grant recipients. 

Four-year students who identified as “Other Race” or “Black” reported higher rates of basic needs insecurity than students from other racial and ethnic groups. Two-year students who were Pacific Islanders reported more challenges getting their basic needs met than two-year students of other ancestries.

Miles noted 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 reported catching COVID-19, but nearly a quarter said they had a close friend or family member who had the coronavirus. More than 70% reported having trouble focusing on school and more than 40% reported anxiety.

Potential Solutions?

The survey findings were unsurprising to Alex Miller, the chair of the organizing committee for UH graduate students.

Last March, his group set up an emergency cash assistance program for students in the immediate wake of COVID-19 shutdown orders. Between March and May, he said they gave about $5,000 to 50 undergraduates. The group stopped the funding once UH set up a relief fund with federal dollars.

Miller remembers hearing from students who had to support their families, both children and parents, as widespread job loss rippled through Hawaii.

“It just highlights that we don’t pay service workers enough,” Miller said of the survey results, noting many students are service and university workers. “It’s not an excuse that because they’re a student they don’t need a lot of money and they don’t have a right to a living wage.”

In a statement, the university president said, “Having two out of five students experience hunger during 2020 is extremely concerning.”

Miller called that response “spineless.”

“For those students who face hunger, I think it’s a little bit more than concerning to them,” he said.

He said allowing student workers to unionize, increasing wages and providing affordable student housing would help solve the economic insecurity problem.

More Awareness

Miles from the university’s Basic Needs Committee said it will be tough to solve the problems raised by the survey because they reflect systemic societal problems.

“It was an untenable situation before (the pandemic) and was exacerbated by the crisis,” he said.

But he said the finding that 58% of students didn’t know how to apply for campus support and thus didn’t do so highlights an opportunity for improvement.

We’re never going to 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 that we’ve created and the assets in their community.”

The survey found 55% of UH students who were experiencing basic needs insecurity reported receiving public assistance. But many others who were eligible for help didn’t get it.

Miles said California channels tens of millions of dollars to help address the economic insecurity of university students while Hawaii doesn’t have such funds.

“We are presently thinly resourced,” he said, adding his committee is talking to UH about potential solutions. “I just think it’s important that we take this issue seriously because it’s negatively impacting many young people’s lives.”

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