What Colleges Can Do About Growing Student Poverty

  • May 5, 2020
Young Beautiful Red Hair Girl Sitting Alone Outdoors On The Wooden Bench On The Street With Hat And Shirt Feeling Anxious And Depressed After She Became A Homeless Person

Dr. Anthony Abraham Jack details in New York Times Magazine his personal experience being an underprivileged student at an elite institution.

Night came early in the chill of March. It was my freshman year at Amherst College, …and I was a kid on scholarship from Miami. I had just survived my first winter, but spring seemed just as frigid. Amherst felt a little colder — or perhaps just lonelier — without the money to return home for spring break like so many of my peers.

At that moment, however, I thought less of home and more about the gnawing feeling in the pit of my stomach. I walked past Valentine Hall, the cafeteria, its large windows ghostly in the moonlight. Only the emergency exit signs blazed red in the darkness. There was just enough light to see the chairs stacked on top of the tables and the trays out of reach through the gates that barred me from entry. Amherst provided no meals during holidays and breaks, but not all of us could afford to leave campus.

Jack, who is now a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, describes an experience that is all too common in higher education and is only becoming more so. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2016, 20% of dependent undergraduate students were impoverished, mostly at public two-year, private for-profit and minimally-selective colleges– a jump of 8% since 1996. Dependent students are defined as those under age 24 assumed to be receiving financial support from their family. For independent students with little or no family support, the poverty rate jumps to 42%, up 13% from 20 years earlier.

Graduation rates for students in poverty are pretty dismal. According to Spotlight On Poverty, only 11% of students from the lowest income bracket will graduate. Although most might assume rising tuition is the key issue, Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, Professor of Higher Education Policy and Sociology at Temple University, says on Talk Poverty that her team’s research shows tuition is not the main barrier to degree completion, it’s “having a place to sleep and enough food to eat.”

The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, led by Goldrick-Rab, released a 2018 report detailing a survey of 43,000 students. 36% said they had experienced some form of housing insecurity. 9%  of students reported being homeless. Among community college students, 46 percent reported housing insecurity, and 12 percent reported homelessness. In California’s community colleges, those numbers are even more startling. 60% of the 40,000 students surveyed at dozens of California community colleges reported being housing insecure and 19% said they were homeless.

More than 30% of college students are food insecure, according to the College and University Food Bank Alliance, a group that supports and promotes food banks on campuses. The group started with 12 member institutions in 2012 and now has over 700 members.

What Colleges Can Do

Dr. Anthony Abraham Jack in the New York Times Magazine article recommends measures that colleges and universities can take to support students of limited means:

  • Hire more diverse faculty and staff, not just ethnically diverse, but also those that might be more familiar with the issues facing underprivileged students.
  • Go beyond committees and surveys to “take the pulse of the community and reveal blind spots among administrators, faculty, and staff.”
  • Hold training sessions to help university officials face their own racial and class biases.
  • Form partnerships between faculty, staff, administrators, and student groups to keep lines of communication open.
  • Expand meal plans to cover recesses in the academic calendar.
  • Offer help to students dealing with the often-confusing federal rules on public assistance programs:

“The U.S. Government Accountability Office reported that in 2016, of the nearly 3.3 million students who were eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), less than half applied,” says Jack. “Students in need must navigate not only the bureaucratic red tape to apply but also the double bind of the 20-hour workweek requirement — the minimum to receive SNAP benefits, but also the federal work-study maximum — all while staying in good academic standing.”

Community College Review offers these tips for colleges:

  • Form partnerships with state and local agencies that provide financial services.
  • Develop centers on the college campus that will direct students to the financial assistance they need.
  • Educate faculty and staff on assistance programs available to increase awareness of students.

Felice Rollins, Founder of College Momentum Academy, offers these suggestions for students and college personnel in her “College Guide for Low Income Students,” among them:

  • Students should seek out mentors who understand their struggles and have had experience with the same challenges.
  • Students should seek out Federal, college-based programs such as Student Support Services through the U.S. Department of Education, and other Federal help they may be eligible for such as SNAP.
  • Students should see if college application fees can be waived.
  • Colleges should utilize “intrusive advising” strategies that proactively solve issues instead of waiting for students to seek assistance.
  • Colleges should offer assistance to students in filling out the complex Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.
  • Colleges should offer free or reduced tuition to low-income students.

Tackling Food Insecurity

Goldrick-Rab cites these examples of what colleges are doing to address food insecurity:

  • Establishing food pantries providing food and necessities to low-income students.
  • Joining the College and University Food Bank Alliance offering support and resources to institutions that want to establish or maintain a food bank for low-income students.
  • Many colleges operate a program called Swipe Out Hunger, which allocates unused dollars on meal plans to students who need them.
  • Some institutions are accepting EBT on campus.
  • A local food bank in Houston is offering “food scholarships” to community college students.
  • Campuses are supporting food recovery networks, nutrition programs, and educational activities like Challah for Hunger, “where students gather to break bread and learn about poverty.”

Addressing Homelessness

USA Today and Affordablecollegesonline.org offer these examples of how colleges and state/local governments are addressing student homelessness:

  • Residential Life and Off-Campus Housing offices on some campuses are providing support resources to help students find affordable, year-round, and temporary housing, or in some cases, youth shelters.
  • Some colleges are offering school-sponsored trips focused on community service during breaks- often these trips include housing.
  • The California Assembly passed a bill that would require every community college in the state to provide safe parking lots where homeless students can sleep in their cars.
  • Massachusetts launched a pilot project enabling community college students to live on nearby four-year college campuses.
  • Tacoma Community College in Washington works with the local housing authority to provide vouchers to help students pay for rent.
  • Jovenes, a group in Southern California, pays the rent and provides apartments to share for homeless students.

We look to a new decade with the hope of successfully grappling with the challenge of nationwide poverty and homelessness. With colleges being a critical gateway for upward mobility, higher ed can be integral to the solution.