The Intersection

Supporting Student Needs

April 1, 2020

Updated: September 14, 2020


The COVID-19 crisis has revealed that many emergency plans and procedures developed by colleges and universities have not fully accounted for significant student needs, including issues of housing and food insecurity. What are some of the ways that states can help students currently affected, as well as students who may be impacted by future closures?

The Challenge

As institutions of higher education (IHEs) across the country are implementing policies to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, many administrators are turning to one particular document – their Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) – to guide their next steps. Although the specifics vary by IHE, each EOP contains detailed instructions for different IHE departments (including Dining Services and Residential Life) about policy changes that will be made in the case of emergencies such as a pandemic.

In both the short and long terms, IHE leaders will be evaluating whether their EOP set the institution up for a successful response to COVID-19. In fact, some state leaders are requiring and supporting IHE action on EOP revisions – New Jersey Secretary of Higher Education Dr. Zakiya Smith Ellis issued guidance telling state IHEs to submit their most recent EOP to her office and to ensure that IHE emergency management teams are reviewing and updating EOPs. Secretary Ellis’s guidance specifically mentions that IHEs should evaluate the need to “update plans to include considerations for students who may be food or housing insecure.”

This is a crucial point. Today’s higher education students already face significant chances of experiencing financial need, food insecurity, and housing insecurity.

Those numbers are likely to get worse as the economic fallout from COVID-19 continues. As IHE leaders take a close look at their EOPs, they should consider the degree to which the plan contains instructions on setting up specific systems of support that can address these student needs.

State policymakers may be wondering how they can support this effort by IHE leaders to ensure that their EOPs are able to support today’s higher education students. This issue brief contains potential policy response options for both IHE and state leaders, organized by specific student need.

Policy Considerations

For the purposes of providing support to higher education students, it is helpful to think in terms of the specific needs that many students (from all demographic subgroups) have:

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