RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Colleges and universities across the country are continuing to cancel in-person classes because of the threat of the coronavirus, and many of them have asked their students to pack up and leave campus indefinitely. But what about students who might not have a stable home to go back to? Anya Kamenetz from NPR's education team reports.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Lee Myers is a senior at Berea College in Kentucky. Up until March 14, he was living in an environmental dorm called Deep Green and thinking about a career in social justice. Now that the college is closed down and canceled graduation, he and his classmates have more immediate worries.
LEE MYERS: Some people are panicking, rightly so, 'cause they don't know what they're going to do. It was sort of like a bombshell that dropped on campus.
KAMENETZ: Students in higher education are relatively privileged as a group. But within their ranks, many, many people struggle to meet basic needs.
SARA GOLDRICK-RAB: It's not reasonable, necessarily, to assume that if they close the residence halls, they have some place to go.
KAMENETZ: That's Sara Goldrick-Rab, the founder of the Hope Center at Temple University. They do an annual survey, last year finding 39% of college students experienced food insecurity and 17% were homeless for part of the year. Around 700 colleges across the country have established food pantries for students in the past several years, including Georgetown, UC Berkeley and the University of Washington. And Goldrick-Rab says, now is the time for colleges to really step up.
GOLDRICK-RAB: When you're trying to help a group of people, especially during a crisis, it's really important to center the most vulnerable people.
KAMENETZ: These campus closures had happened quickly. And so far, there are scattered efforts to close the financial gap. Tim Jordan, a spokesman from Berea College, said the school is offering financial assistance to help students with traveling home. Lee Myers asked for help getting back to White House, Tenn.
MYERS: So like, I needed additional aid to cover gas costs because my bank account is not that great right now.
KAMENETZ: But that's not all these students need. Berea is what's called a work college. Students pay no tuition, work on-campus jobs and graduate without debt. Lee Myers also depends on the school for his health insurance.
MYERS: A lot of students are really not sure whether they can actually get the housing or stay on campus. And many of them are facing the prospect of homelessness or, like, living with a friend for a little bit.
KAMENETZ: The federal Department of Education has announced that colleges can continue paying students their federal work-study wages and, quote, "use professional judgment" when considering the impact of COVID-19 on students' financial aid needs. NPR contacted 86 of the hundreds of colleges that have closed so far. Many, such as Amherst and Stanford, have announced that students need to petition or register in order to stay in the dorms. Goldrick-Rab says that's a mistake.
GOLDRICK-RAB: Asking students to petition to stay on campus or asking them to do extensive paperwork or really, frankly, to go through any sort of administrative hassle shows a misalignment with the actual problem. Right? So the biggest problem right now is that students are stressed and scared.
KAMENETZ: Responding to those feelings, some students are stepping up to help their classmates and build community. Isabella Liu, a 19-year-old student council member at the University of Virginia, has set up a mutual aid Facebook page so students and community members can help each other out with money, housing, frequent flyer miles or anything else.
ISABELLA LIU: There are cases of students saying they cannot go home due to extenuating familial circumstances - you know, an unhealthy, toxic or even abusive environment at home.
KAMENETZ: She's home now at her dad's in Atlanta. But she says she's heading back to UVA's campus soon to help distribute food and whatever else is needed.
Anya Kamenetz, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF AFFELAYE'S "MAYBE THERE")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.