A new survey of more than 80,000 community college students found a third of respondents said they already struggled to get enough food to eat within the last month. The same survey found about a quarter of students who had to pay rent struggled at least once in the last year to cover their housing costs.
Students who are focused on meeting their basic needs generally can’t direct their full attention to their coursework, which could lead to them dropping out at a time when community college enrollment already has fallen sharply. And people with student loans but no degree struggle both to find meaningful employment and to pay their debts.
These findings come from the Center for Community College Student Engagement, a research institute at the University of Texas in Austin. Executive Director Linda García said students shared their responses anonymously, and that the results ought to be a “conversation starter for community colleges to dig in deeper to look at their students.”
“We risk losing the opportunity to educate them,” Garcia said. “But those most in need stand to lose the most.”
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The group administered the survey in spring 2021, and it includes responses from roughly 82,000 students at nearly 200 community or technical colleges across the country. It also comes at a time when community college enrollment has fallen steeply in the middle of the pandemic. These institutions had about 5 million students in spring 2020, but have since lost about 827,000 students, according to the National Student Clearinghouse.
Community college students are likely to experience different challenges than the traditional 18- to 22-year-old college student. On average, these students are 27, and more than a third range in age from 22 to 39, according to data from the American Association of Community Colleges. These types of colleges are also generally open-access: They accept almost all students who apply.
About 30% of students who responded to the survey said they had struggled to find enough food to eat in the past 30 days, according to the report. That insecurity may look like skipping meals or reducing portion sizes. Black and Hispanic students reported hunger at higher rates than their white peers.
Its figures are roughly in line with findings from the Hope Center for College Community and Justice, a research center focused on students’ basic needs based at Temple University in Pennsylvania. That group found that nearly 40% of students at community colleges in 2020 struggled with food security.
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Debi Gaitan, interim president of Northwest Vista College in Texas, said some of her students are already stretching their limited resources.
“Sometimes it comes down to making a decision between if I am going to be able to pay for rent or I am going to be able to pay for books,” she said. “Am I going to be able to pay for tuition, or am I going to be able to pay for food? It’s not luxuries they’re giving up.”
Some might question the colleges’ roles in making sure students can eat, Gaitan said, but helping students now with their current needs helps them to provide for themselves long-term. After all, earning a degree often comes with a higher earning power later on.
The survey also found about 14% of students faced housing insecurity, according to the group. That definition may include students who are unable to pay their rent in full, but also those who stayed at a homeless shelter, motel or outdoors because they had no other place to go. Students with children reported higher rates of food and housing insecurity compared with their peers who don’t have dependents.
Other surveys also point toward students struggling to afford basic necessities during the pandemic. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, a trade organization of university financial aid professionals, released an analysis of how students spent emergency stimulus money based on surveys given to roughly 18,000 people between March and April 2022. The group also partnered with the NASPA, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, another higher education trade group, and HCM Strategists, a consulting firm.
On average, their analysis found, students received between $1,000 to $2,000 in emergency aid, though just over 60% reported getting financial assistance. The majority of students used their stimulus funding on food, books and housing costs, and roughly four in ten students spent the money on transportation.
About a third of students directed the emergency funding to “upcoming tuition, technology devices, internet service, or utilities.” About 90% of those who received aid said the support helped them to “experience less stress and better focus on their studies.”
Are food pantries enough to help hungry college students?
One of the unexpected challenges in getting aid to students is making them aware it exists. The survey focused on how students spent stimulus funding found that roughly half of those who didn’t receive aid didn’t know emergency aid was available.
A separate paper from The Trellis Company, a student loan servicer that also conducts research, found that 91 of the 104 colleges participating in a 2021 survey of student financial wellness had a food pantry or closet on campus. Of the rough 50,000 students on these campuses, only about 40% of students knew their institutions provided food, and 9% of respondents incorrectly said their campuses didn’t have such a resource.
At Northwest Vista College, support staff work with students individually to make sure they get access to the services they need, said Lisa Black, who oversees the Student Advocacy and Resource Center. They have, for example, called a student’s landlord when they fall behind on rent. Graduate students from universities also come to Northwest Vista College to help its undergraduates access the college’s support services.
“We really endeavor to not just give the student a list of numbers,” Black said. “Because when you’re drowning, that doesn’t feel like much of a life raft.”
The college also has a food pantry, but Black said community colleges can’t think that alone will be enough to help struggling students.
Garcia, of the Center for Community College Student Engagement, said that means colleges will have to get creative to inform their students about the services available. That may mean tasking a college adviser with informing students about a college’s food pantry or having instructors include that information in their course materials.
“It’s about making the information inescapable,” Garcia said.
Contact Chris Quintana at (202) 308-9021 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @CQuintanadc.