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Hunger and Homelessness Among Comm Coll Students More Pervasive Than Previously Thought

by P.D. Lesko

A new report, titled “Hungry and Homeless in College” reveals substantially higher rates of food insecurity among community college students than previously reported, while rates of housing insecurity and homelessness were consistent with prior estimates.” A 2015 report prepared by the same group, the Association of Community College Trustees, indicated that about half of community college students were food insecure, but the 2017 report found that two in three students are food insecure. Both surveys revealed that about half of community college students were housing insecure, and 13 to 14 percent were homeless.

Food insecurity is the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner. The most extreme form is often accompanied with physiological sensations of hunger. Homelessness means that a person is without a place to live, often residing in a shelter, an automobile, an abandoned building or outside, while housing insecurity includes a broader set of challenges such as the inability to pay rent or utilities or the need to move frequently.

The first level of Maslow’s pyramid of human needs encompasses securing physiological requirements for breathing, food, water, shelter, clothing, and sleep. For decades, discussions about why some undergraduates leave college without degrees have neglected to consider whether any of these basic functional needs are being met.

“For example,” the report’s authors write, “we are aware of only two studies conducted before 2011 anywhere in the United States that examined either food or housing security—one in Hawaii and one in New York City. However, since then there has been a wave of interest in the subject, in part because of growing attention to a crisis of college affordability and the rising price of living in America.”

Ruben Canedo, co-chair of the Food Access and Security Committee for the University of California (UC) systemwide Global Food Initiative, says, “Because the cost of living is increasing and the cost of a university education is increasing, students are facing basic needs security challenges at higher levels and in ways we haven’t expected.”

This study includes more than 33,000 students at 70 community colleges in 24 states. While this is not a nationally representative sample of students or colleges, it is far greater in size and diversity than prior samples, and provides information to shed new light on critical issues warranting further research.

Over the last five years, it has become increasingly clear that the living expenses associated with productive enrollment in higher education constitute substantial barriers for many college students. While growth in public sector tuition has slowed in many states, the cost of living has not. Even though work has long been a strategy for covering food and housing, and some financial aid is available, students struggle in today’s low-wage labor market to earn enough to make ends meet.

The security of students’ basic needs for safe, affordable housing and food has thus become a topic of discussion among some policymakers, practitioners, students, and families.

The focus on community colleges in the “Hungry and Homeless in College” report is deliberate and timely. Community colleges are the most accessible, affordable points of entry to higher education in the United States and they exist in nearly every corner of the nation. They serve nearly one in two undergraduates and enroll by far the most economically and racially diverse students. While their tuition rates and administrative fees are significantly lower on average than those of other sectors, prices relative to the family incomes of their students have grown quite substantially, presenting barriers to degree completion. After all grant aid is accounted for, a dependent student from a family in the lowest annual income quartile, earning $21,000 per year, would have to pay $8,300, or 40 percent of her family’s total income, for a year of community college. Thus, while there is growing evidence that food and housing insecurity is pervasive across college types and sectors, it is imperative for policymakers and practitioners to first focus their efforts on addressing basic needs in security at community colleges.

Community college students of color were overrepresented among homeless undergraduates in the study. Whereas only eight percent of the housing-secure students in this survey are African American, they comprised 17 percent of the homeless community college students in the study. More than one in five homeless students profiled in the study is Hispanic, and almost 16 percent identify as multi-racial. Yet the largest single racial category among homeless community college students in the study is non-Hispanic white.

Portraits of two homeless students:

Mary Ashley Estrella Mountain Community College Avondale, AZ

A married woman with three young children, Mary Ashley grew up the oldest child in a large Native American family on an isolated reservation. She was the first to attend college and did so hoping that getting an education would help lift her family into the middle-class. Her tribe provided her with a modest scholarship, which she initially used to enroll in a medical assistant program at a for-profit college. She completed that certificate but still could not find a job, and in the meantime her husband was injured in a car accident and rendered unable to work. So she returned to school, this time to Estrella Mountain Community College. The financial aid and scholarship that Mary Ashley received in community college quickly proved insufficient support for a family of five. They turned to the local church for free food and struggled to make ends meet. Under economic duress, Mary Ashley and her husband split up, and she was left on her own. Without a parent with whom to share childcare, and no affordable options nearby, it became difficult for Mary Ashley to attend classes. She switched to online courses, but found she could not afford the bills for internet and computer access at home. Even as she continued trying to work towards a degree, late payments for both rent and utility rendered her and her children housing insecure, as they were threatened with eviction.–from “Hungry and Homeless in College,” 2017.

Danny Milwaukee Area Technical College Milwaukee, WI

Raised by a single mother, Danny found it difficult to leave home and his younger brother in order to attend college. So he enrolled in the local public university, and remained in the family house. But during his first year, his mother lost her job and bills became difficult to pay. His financial aid was insufficient, so he worked at a retail store, laid pavement, sold plasma, cut lawns, and did some contracting work on the side—all while taking a full course load. That still didn’t work, and soon his brother and mother moved out of state to live with relatives. Danny stayed in school, determined to make it through. He moved in with his aunt and uncle, who charged him $600 per month for rent to sleep in the basement. He was never given keys to the home, and was often locked out, instead sleeping in his car. He also ran short of food, relying on the local pantry. These conditions left him exhausted, sometimes asleep in class.

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