By Kyle Breen and Michelle Annette Meyer
College students in the United States occupy a unique social space between adolescence and adulthood. Traditional-age college students are learning how to live independently from their parents, although many still depend on their family members for financial and emotional support. In addition, college students often move away from home to new geographic locations, potentially exposing them to different hazard contexts. Their position within the social structure may generate unique risks for college students during disasters.
The purpose of this research was to gain insight into how college students’ educational experiences were affected by the 2016 Louisiana floods and its aftermath. While studies have looked at the vulnerability of children in elementary and secondary schools during disasters, current college students have been under-represented in hazards research and emergency management applications. Some universities have begun to acknowledge the unique challenges that college students face during disasters. The impacts of these difficulties include displacement, attendance issues, grade fluctuations, and changes in motivation. There is still more to be learned, however, regarding the experiences of young adults in disasters.
The 2016 Louisiana Floods
In August 2016, prolonged rainfall dropped 20 inches of rain in the Baton Rouge region over a three-day period. The ensuing floods destroyed more than 55,000 homes, many of which lacked flood insurance. The disaster occurred about one week before the start of the Fall 2016 academic semester, and many college campuses started a week late. Although the universities in the region avoided major damages, many of the students were from areas impacted by the floods.
At Southern University in Baton Rouge, enrollment declined due to the costs of a university education as well as to flooding, with about 400 enrolled students failing to report for the Fall semester. The parent of one student encapsulated the feelings of many: “My home is lost. My automobile is lost. We’re under a financial burden, and our mental state is not one where I want my child starting college or continuing college under these conditions.”
In spring 2017, approximately six months after the flood, we interviewed 33 college students. The interviewees were all enrolled at four-year public universities in Louisiana and had experienced the flood either personally or through effects on their immediate families. Open-ended questions posed during the interviews were designed to gain information about their personal experiences in the disaster, the college students’ role in flood recovery, and their educational experiences following the flood. They were each asked to self-identify their family’s social class, as well as how they paid for their tuition (financial aid, family, or self-funding), along with other demographic questions.
Strong Family Ties and Sharing the Hardship
Analysis of the interviews revealed that one of the most significant impacts on students after a disaster is when their families are affected. Students with closer family ties who felt a strong sense of responsibility to help their families experience greater stress and emotional trauma, which increases the risk of negative impacts. Three additional themes related to educational experiences emerged in the data.
During and after a disaster, some students feel an obligation to their families that is stronger than their responsibility to stay in school. One student described how helping her family find living arrangements severely limited the amount of time she was able to devote to her studies. “When the flood happened, all of a sudden I had to help take care of them,” she said. “There was only so much I could do, so as far as my education timeline goes, I was set back.” Another student said she needed to go home more to help her parents recover, and often her classes had to be put on the back burner.
College students can provide unique skillsets and important labor to communities as well as financial and emotional resources to their families; the need for these resources is amplified after a disaster. For the students, this results in a diversion of effort from studying and employment to supporting their families’ resilience, which often occurs at the detriment of their own educational outcomes. Student interviewees who categorized themselves as upper-middle or upper-class did not express the same feelings of financial burden as middle- and working-class students.
Students whose families had the financial means to take responsibility for flood recovery experienced no change in their grades, because they were able to stay focused on their studies. One student said her family encouraged her to concentrate on school and ignore the distractions caused by the flood. Conversely, another student shared that he needed to contribute some of his part-time job earnings to his family to help them during the recovery.
Stress and Motivation
All interviewees experienced motivational changes, emotional trauma, and stress following the flood. Much of the stress was related to being enrolled in school at the time their family needed help during the recovery process. One student stated, “It was very depressing during the first few months, and there was a lot of pressure like ‘you need to get a job,’ so my motivation dropped from all of the pressure.”
Shifting the Focus to Families in Crisis
Social vulnerability refers to the ways in which social systems and economic stratification operate to make certain people more vulnerable to disasters. This study helped reveal the ways that college students are uniquely affected by disasters due to their position in society. While some institutions are taking action to mitigate these impacts through measures such as expanding emergency funds to students, more can be done.
Universities should work to enhance disaster response and recovery not just when their campuses are affected, but with the understanding that families in crisis during a disaster may present the greatest challenges to students. These obstacles have the potential to negatively impact the students’ life trajectories. Likewise, future research should focus not just on how disasters impact students and campuses, but how impacts ripple through families to influence students’ educational aspirations and achievements.
About the Special Collection
This special collection of Research Counts grew out of a longstanding collaboration between the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters (IJMED) and the Natural Hazards Center. Our commitment in this special collection is to bring key findings and ideas from recent IJMED articles to a broader audience of emergency managers, disaster risk reduction professionals, and policymakers in the hazards and disaster field.
This Research Counts article was written by science and travel writer, Laurie J. Schmidt. It is based upon the following publication:
Breen, Kyle and Michelle Annette Meyer. 2021. “Staying Above Water: Educational Outcomes of College Students during the 2016 Louisiana Flood.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 39(2): 199-226.
Kyle Breen is a postdoctoral research associate appointed in the School of Social Work at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada. He received his PhD in sociology from Louisiana State University in 2022. Breen's research centers on the impacts of hazards, disasters, and environmental injustice on historically marginalized groups. Additionally, his research focuses on how environmental hazards affect educational processes and outcomes.