By Katharine Webster
“We need to do more to make sure that no student ever goes homeless or hungry.”
That was the charge that UML Chancellor Jacquie Moloney laid before a conference on helping the most vulnerable college students succeed by addressing basic needs, including hunger, housing insecurity and the social and emotional issues that accompany them.
The third annual Voices of Hunger conference for colleges in southern New England was organized by a team led by Anne Ciaraldi, associate dean of student affairs and UMass Lowell’s “single point of contact” for students in crisis.
Matt Farley, director of Campus Compact for Southern New England, one of the conference’s sponsors, acknowledged that even his group – 80 schools committed to higher education as a gateway to social change – was slow to realize what students face as higher education costs mount and state funding for public colleges and universities fails to keep pace.
Keynote speaker Anthony Jack, an assistant professor of education at Harvard University, says that his research shows that food pantries and meal swipe programs are only the beginning when it comes to helping students, especially the “doubly disadvantaged” who come from low-income families and distressed public high schools.
Things that colleges do routinely – like closing dining halls over spring break and charging students a daily fee to remain on campus – amplify the inequality that disadvantaged students face, including those that Jack calls the “privileged poor,” students from low-income backgrounds who attend selective high schools and then come to top colleges on scholarship.
Even at Harvard, he said, one in seven students struggles over spring break.
“When students come to college, poverty and inequality come to college, too,” he said. “My students know hunger, but their college assumes that all students depart campus for fun in the sun. … Spring break is the real hunger games, and the odds are never in poor students’ favor.”
U.S. Government Accountability Office analyst Nora Boretti talked about the research she led for a recent GAO report on rates of food insecurity on college campuses, what campuses are doing to address student hunger and what the Department of Agriculture can do to make SNAP benefits (previously food stamps) more accessible for college students.
One key finding: The law that limits college students’ access to SNAP benefits was intended to prevent “traditional” college students – full-time, younger students supported by their parents – from getting food stamps. But 71 percent of college students nationwide are “nontraditional,” she said: They are older, mostly self-supporting and going to school part time while working – and often supporting children and other family members, too.
“We found that 57 percent of potentially eligible low-income college students did not receive SNAP benefits in 2016,” she said. “Even after maxing out their federal student aid, grants and loans, students were still struggling to meet basic needs.”
The report also found that some colleges are helping needy students apply for SNAP. And some states, including Massachusetts, have made it easier for low-income students who are eligible for certain community college programs to automatically qualify for SNAP if they meet the other criteria.
Massachusetts Commissioner of Higher Education Carlos Santiago said that making sure students can meet their basic needs is an equity issue that the state Board of Higher Education is committed to addressing.
“When we talk about the cost of education, it’s not just tuition and fees,” Santiago said. “It’s housing, child care, transportation and food.”
Two-thirds of students of color in the state are going to community colleges, which are the least well-funded, Santiago said. However, his department did manage to win approval for a $7 million increase in state financial aid funding for community college students this year after levels had remained unchanged for two decades.
The state has also invested in transportation between divided campuses – several community colleges have two campuses in different towns – and pilot programs, including one that provides housing for otherwise homeless community college students in a state college residence hall. UMass Lowell is a pilot site for that program.
Sumail Sajid, a veteran and student at Middlesex Community College, is one of the beneficiaries. Sajid said he has been homeless three times since he was 15. A decade later, he’s grateful to have a room at the UML Inn & Conference Center, where he can also eat in the student dining facility. He would like to see the program expanded to more students.
“It’s a sense of relief to be able to go back to a room that you know is safe,” he said. “Thanks to this program, I’ve just focused on my schooling and getting out of debt.”
Pamela Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College, talked about the need for systemic change – and the need to educate policymakers and the public. College administrators must use data on their student bodies to confront common myths, such as that college students are a privileged elite who can call their parents for more money when needed.
“Three-quarters of my students are parents,” she said.
She and Duncan Harris, interim campus CEO at Capital Community College in Hartford, Conn., talked about some of the solutions on their campuses. Like UMass Lowell, they have a person designated as a “single point of contact” for students in crisis, food pantries and emergency funds. Capital Community College also started an equity center with community agencies that provide day care on campus and other services.
The conference was hosted by the university and co-sponsored by Campus Compact, Bunker Hill and Northern Essex community colleges and Massachusetts Appleseed.