When he runs out of options, some nights Sam sleeps in his car. The students he attends class with at Milwaukee Area Technical College don’t know — his bright smile, carefully assembled outfits, and optimistic chatter are all they see. But his friend Angel understands; he and his three sisters are barely able to make it day to day since their mom was deported. His older sister works full-time to support them and their elderly grandmother while Angel works on his associate’s degree.
Over at Madison College, Jenna has been taking a class or two at a time for nearly four years. She can’t do more while raising two children on her own, though food stamps help a bit. She’s frustrated and wishes it would be easier to finish her degree, so that she could get a better job and secure a better life for her family.
Every year about three in 10 college students leave college without a degree. Many receive financial aid and also work, but the prices are so high that they can’t make ends meet. Even at community colleges, their basic needs go unmet: food runs short, and safe housing is hard to come by.
Sam, Angel and Jenna have managed to stay in college despite the odds, and at the end of April they joined more than 150 people from around the country at the first-ever national meeting about college food and housing insecurity. Hosted by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab at Milwaukee Area Technical College, the #RealCollege convening was intended to inspire action. At the end of 2015, my team at the Lab published an op-ed in the New York Times describing our latest research about the prevalence of material hardship among the nation’s community college students.
Data from a survey of more than 4,000 students at 10 institutions around the country revealed that one in five was hungry, and 13 percent were homeless. Sadly, we weren’t surprised. Since 2008, we have been tracking food and housing insecurity in Wisconsin, while a handful of other scholars around the nation have been doing the same. It’s become increasingly clear that rising child poverty rates in the United States, coupled with broadened college enrollment, means that the same challenges confronting elementary and secondary schools now face colleges and universities too.
Dozens of practitioners, along with some policymakers, faculty, and students, reached out to the Lab when our op-ed ran. These people were working to provide food via campus pantries, offering emergency aid, or coming up with creative ways to house students for a few nights or weeks. But they were working in isolation on an unrecognized and unspoken problem. The college completion challenge, we are told, is about the need for better remedial instruction, advising, or nudges to push students to move faster and finish degrees. It isn’t about hunger and homelessness. Or is it?
#RealCollege created community among individuals who know something that American higher education must quickly realize. Students are hungry to learn, and without a secure place to sleep at night and enough nutritious food to eat, they cannot. There’s virtually no assistance available to help college students in need of food or housing. While campuses invest in fancy dining halls and dorms, and real estate developers build luxury apartments for students, students with little money get left behind.
There is no National School Lunch Program or National School Breakfast program in higher education. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) technically makes food stamps available to students, but only if they have children, work at least 20 hours per week, or receive Federal Work Study. A tight labor market, especially for students with difficult schedules, and insufficient funding for work-study contribute to the large numbers of food-insecure students not receiving food stamps.
Representatives from the U.S. departments of Education, Housing and Urban Development, and Agriculture came to #RealCollege, as did staff from the White House. Discussions about federal policy flowed throughout most of the first day, as we focused on the need to better align benefits programs and ensure that students can access them, and even proposed a National School Lunch Program for higher education. On the second day we learned from the ingenuity of organizations like the College and University Food Bank Alliance, Swipe Out Hunger, the Houston Food Bank’s Food for Change program, and the University of California’s Global Food Initiative.
It was heartening to hear that in Tacoma, Wash., the local housing authority has partnered with the local community college to make spaces available for students. But learning that this fall will witness the opening of the Bruin Shelter, a homeless shelter for students at UCLA, gave us pause. What is this new world in which great public universities need such spaces?
Whatever higher education has become, it is incumbent upon all of us to figure out how to help students navigate it. The Wisconsin HOPE Lab is committed to leading the way, conducting translational research to study how students endure material hardship and how they overcome it to succeed in college. #RealCollege was an initial step in what will be a long journey. Funding for this work is scarce — college food insecurity is not yet considered an “education” topic, while undergraduates are hardly a priority for those working to alleviate poverty. These attitudes stand in contrast to what we tell children in this country: if they work hard and go to school, we have their back and will support them. When they graduate from high school and reach college, our jobs continue. It is time to come to grips with what that really means.
In September the University of Chicago Press will publish Sara Goldrick-Rab’s latest book, “Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream.”