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Hungry and Homeless Community College Students: Disturbing Rates

The colleges tuition fees grow each year, and this tendency has disturbing consequences. A national study of basic needs insecurity in higher education by Wisconsin HOPE Lab published on March 2017 showed alarmingly high rates of homeless and hungry community college students.

Housing and food are basic and essential needs for every human, and a student trying to focus on school is not an exception. Food and housing security are what ensures students start college, don’t drop out and get a degree.

But in reality, the situation is quite the opposite. Wisconsin HOPE Lab founder, a professor at Temple University, Sara Goldrick-Rab and two co-authors surveyed more than 33,000 students at 70 community colleges in 24 states. They conducted similar research back in 2015, at that time approximately 4,000 students at 10 community colleges in 7 states took part in the survey. Researchers say that recent study is not a nationally representative sample of students or colleges, but it’s broader, more diverse and reflects the issue far better, though further studies are required.

The Results

Sara Goldrick-Rab, Jed Richardson, and Anthony Hernandez found that two in three students are food insecure, about half of community college students are housing insecure, and 13-14% are homeless.

Besides, it looks like rates don’t depend too much on the geographic location of the community college students: there is a meager geographic difference in hunger and homelessness.

Two groups of community college students are exposed to the risk of food and housing insecurity more than others: former foster youth and parenting students. 29% of former foster youth surveyed are homeless, and this rate is far higher than that of non-former foster youth attending community college. 63% of students with children are food insecure, about 14% are homeless, and only around 5% received any child care assistance.

31-32% of students experiencing food or housing insecurity are both working and receiving financial aid. Homeless students are more likely to work at a low-wage, low-quality jobs for longer hours. Moreover, almost one-third of students experiencing food and housing insecurity have loans to cover college expenses.

The study states that 70% of the homeless students surveyed are female, and they tend to be older than their counterparts with secure housing. For example, 45% of homeless students are over the age of 25, compared to 34% of housing secure students. 27%of the homeless students are under 21 years old, and more than 70% had no children. Ten percent are former foster youth.

And despite experiencing such severe challenges, students manage to commit to studies. In her letter to USA TODAY College Goldrick-Rab wrote: “Despite being homeless, students spend as much time in class and on school topics as other non-homeless students. They are clearly committed to their education; their homelessness isn’t due to a lack of effort or commitment.”

People behind the numbers

There always are real struggling people behind each survey’s rates. Researcher Anthony Hernandez interviewed students experiencing housing and food insecurity.

Mary Ashley is a mother of three. She went to college hoping to get her family to the middle-class. Her ex-husband was unable to work due to a car accident. Mary received financial aid and scholarship, but that was not enough for a family of five. They had to turn to the church for free food. After the divorce, she was left on her own and financially insecure. She couldn’t attend classes anymore, as there was no one to share childcare. She tried online courses, but she couldn’t afford internet bills and computer access. Late payments for rent and utility became an eviction threat, so now she and her three children experience housing insecurity.

Danny has a single mother and younger brother, and he couldn’t leave them, so he went to the local community college and stayed in the family house. During a freshmen year, his mother lost her job, and he had to work at a store. He received financial aid, but it wasn’t sufficient to pay the bills. He took more hours and side-jobs, but it wasn’t enough either, and his mother and brother had to move out of state. Danny remained in school. He sleeps in aunt’s and uncle’s basement, paying $600 per month for rent. He wasn’t given keys, so he is left locked out often, forced to sleep in the car. This kind of life makes him exhausted, and it’s hard to focus on studies when you live like that.

These are only two stories among thousands and thousands of the similar ones.

What can be done about it?

Goldrick-Rab points out following measures, that could ameliorate current situation: lower tuition prices and higher minimum wage, obviously, affordable housing and food options provided by the colleges, supports for food and housing like in K-12 education.

Various organizations and programs aimed to help students afford housing exist and investments in such assistance programs would have great positive impact.

Food and housing insecurity is a major obstacle, which threatens students health, well-being, and academic achievements.

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