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Coronavirus on campus: College students scramble to solve food insecurity and housing challenges

Key Points
  • College students are among the Americans joining the ranks of the unemployed due to the coronavirus.
  • Meal plans are being prorated at some schools and refunds issued, but many students from low-income families have few options. 
  • "I don't really have a plan at this point," said a Northeastern University student in Boston. "I'm just trying to figure it all out as it comes."
Princeton University's campus was largely deserted as of March 18, 2020 as a growing number of colleges require students to leave for the remainder of the spring semester.
Jessica Dickler | CNBC

As U.S. cases of coronavirus soar, colleges and universities across the country are shutting down to prevent the virus from spreading. For students who can't go home, this poses serious complications.

Northeastern University gave students three days to leave its Boston campus, which hosts the majority of its 27,000 students, just days after stating that students were not being asked to move out of dorms.

Elizabeth Taft, a junior at Northeastern, was unable to return home due to her father's susceptibility to the virus. Living off campus, she said she didn't realize the gravity of the situation until her part-time job at a bakery — an essential source of income — disappeared.

"The fact that I could work made me feel a little bit better. I still had some structure left," Taft said. "That's kind of when it really hit me."

Her bakery closed on March 15 in cooperation with Massachusetts' in-person dining ban. Employees would continue to be paid for half their regular hours over the next week. After that, Taft said they were expected to file for unemployment.

Last Monday, Massachusetts received nearly 20,000 new unemployment claims — more than during the entire month of February. Taft said the Department of Unemployment Assistance has been unresponsive and that she is relying on support from friends.

"I don't really have a plan at this point," she said. "I'm just trying to figure it all out as it comes."

A February survey found nearly 40% of college students who responded had struggled with food insecurity in the last 30 days. Marginalized students were also found to be at greater risk.

First-Generation Low-Income at Yale, or FLY, works to connect students with the school's administration. Its former co-president Neche Veyssal said she has talked to many students who moved into their friends' off-campus apartments after their request to stay on campus was denied.

"That comes at the cost of having to pay rent and buy food," Veyssal said. "What students have been doing is going to food pantries and living off noodles. They're going to whatever supermarkets they can and buying the cheapest food they can."

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A Yale spokeswoman told CNBC in a statement: "We are providing prorated refunds for room and board. In addition, we are ensuring continuity of campus employment (pay) this term while students are away.  The university is also providing housing and food for students who have nowhere to go beyond campus."

Abnner Olivares, a first-generation and low-income freshman at Yale, was back home in Los Angeles when he was told not to return to campus. Living with a family of nine in housing meant for three people — in addition to waking up three hours earlier for online classes — Olivares said this will likely impact his academic performance.

Although he is used to having an empty refrigerator, the Yale student said he is normally able to buy and cook fresh produce for his family when he is home. But as hoarding continues to cause shortages in supermarkets, he said his family is mostly eating frozen foods.

"I'm usually the person who's cooking for my family during break because they're on very busy schedules," he said. "But this time it's different. I'm expected to also do my homework."

Relying heavily on his meal plan, Olivares was working two on-campus jobs to support himself before Yale's campus began to close. Despite the university's commitment to continue paying student employees, he said there have been no updates within the last week.

Nationwide closures of restaurants and retail stores have halted countless part-time jobs, a vital source of income for many college students.

For those living away from home, many are looking elsewhere for help.

Paige Swanson, a senior at Yale and a former co-president of FLY, said her request to stay on campus was denied by the university despite not being able to return home, which forced her to move in with friends. Her suitemate, an international student from India, also had her request denied.

While Swanson and others have greatly benefited from alumni assistance — which includes a spreadsheet of food and housing resources for those in need — she said this is only a "short-term solution" for many students.

"Having talked to administrators, it's very unclear how [refunds] will be determined," she said. "A lot of students are just finding whatever affordable food they can."

Many other universities have also committed to prorating housing and meal plan costs for students leaving campus, including Harvard University, Duke University and Northeastern University. Michigan State University is offering a $1,120 credit to all students who leave campus by April 12. 

But not all schools are issuing refunds.

Georgetown College in Kentucky announced it was "not in a financial position to offer any rebates on housing or meal plans for this three-week period (or the remainder of the semester, if we are in a situation that requires us to remain online beyond the next three weeks)."

The college told CNBC it had not made a final decision regarding the rest of the semester despite its statement.

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