Top 1 Magazine

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Colleges burn through Covid cash trying to soften inflation for students

Benedict College President Roslyn Clark Artis wanted her football players to learn about nutrition when she invited a health expert to speak with them. Instead, Artis learned that some of her students didn’t have enough money to eat.

“One of our students stood up and said. … ‘I live off campus. I can’t afford food some days,’” Artis said in an interview.

About a dozen more of the football players at the historically Black college in South Carolina — half community college transfers and half first-time freshmen who live off campus — also said they were food insecure. While their rent is cheaper because they can split it with as many as five roommates, Artis said, it also means they have other expenses like utilities, groceries and transportation — all which saw stark increases from inflation.

The high price of gas, food and rent is straining students’ access to higher education. In response, institutions like Benedict College are using the infusion of one-time federal Covid relief dollars, grants and philanthropy to ramp up offerings of free clothes, financial aid and other necessities to keep lower-income students on track to earn degrees. But with that cash running out, it’s leaving some college leaders worried about how they’ll sustain many of the programs they’ve built to act as a lifeline for their students.

“We’re seeing colleges across the country take on a variety of supports for students to help them enroll or stay enrolled in college,” Carrie Warick-Smith, vice president of public policy at the Association of Community College Trustees, said in an interview. “Campuses are providing services such as food pantries, help applying for [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program] benefits, housing partnerships, textbook exchanges and in some cases, even offering tuition freezes.”

In Pennsylvania, first lady Frances Wolf and acting Secretary of Education Eric Hagarty announced a Hunger-Free Campus Initiative in August to help food-insecure students access free meals on college campuses across the state. Several states and their university systems, including California, Hawaii, Massachusetts and New Jersey, are working on solutions to ensure their students’ needs are met. Some institutions are also giving students free bus passes and gas cards to get to campus.

These programs will be crucial to student success, experts say, especially as the class of 2022’s federal student aid application completion rate — an early indicator of how many first-time freshmen could be headed to college this fall — was 4.6 percent higher than the year prior. The uptick was driven by an application boost from those enrolled in both low-income and public schools with large populations of Black and brown students, which faced the largest application declines during the pandemic.

“Our population, which is overwhelmingly low-wealth, first-generation kids of color, tend to get hit harder when there are challenges, whether it was Covid-19 or now the economic downturn,” Artis said. “So when you see spikes in gas prices, you see inflationary increases in groceries and food, it really hits these kids pretty hard.”

Inflation challenges

Inflation has been exacerbating the cost for students, said Jessie Hernández-Reyes, a policy analyst for the nonprofit The Education Trust, which advocates for equity in education, especially when it comes to the cost of food, rent and tuition.

“It’s making it more difficult for students to figure out how they’re going to get to class every day when they’re struggling to figure out if they’re going to have their next meal or where to live,” she said.

Expanding nutrition benefits has been key to meeting students’ needs, Hernández-Reyes said, and several states, including Virginia and California, have passed state laws to expand eligibility requirements so more students can access SNAP. When it comes to housing, institutions are trying to make room for more students by incentivizing local alumni to house students and turning conference areas or local hotel areas into temporary dorms, she said.

The Education Trust has been advocating for access to SNAP benefits to be expanded, including when it comes to the employment requirements. Students enrolled more than half-time are ineligible for SNAP, unless they meet an exemption, including working at least 20 hours a week, and meet all other SNAP eligibility requirements.

“It’s one of the many barriers that students have to face,” she said. “Often students may not meet one of those exemptions. And that makes it difficult for them to meet the eligibility requirements.”

Despite the intent of these programs, for low-income and Black and brown students, barriers like verification of their income and their parents’ income can get in the way. Many students at Benedict College, Artis said, have received free and reduced lunch “their entire school lives, and now between June of their 12th grade year and August, when they start college, we want them to prove they’re poor?”

“We look at an 8-year-old boy who’s hungry and we all start to open up,” she said. “But when you look at my 18-year-old football player, you see a grown man who is capable of working and earning his own keep.”

How colleges fund their programs

Federal Covid relief dollars helped some colleges survey their students’ to better understand what bills may keep them from finishing their degrees. A number of states also used state funding and grants to help low-income students get to class.

The California State University system has been bolstering its basic needs initiative for several years as part of a graduation initiative to eliminate achievement gaps. Last year, the large public university system received $15 million in recurring dollars from the state Legislature to meet students’ basic needs. The allocation was increased to $25 million this year.

Community colleges, which also serve large numbers of the nation’s lowest-income students, have been looking at how to ensure their students’ basic needs are met — especially when students stopped out for a variety of reasons during the pandemic, Warwick-Smith said.

“The place that I’m most concerned about is getting students to start again after taking a pause,” she said. “For students who have maintained enrollment, it’s making sure that their needs are being met financially so that they’re able to focus academically.”

Rio Hondo College in California received a $1 million Education Department grant to target basic needs, like mental health staffing, child care, food and housing. The school also relies on partnerships with local agencies to take care of students. It hosts food drives and collaborates with their regional transportation system for no-to-low cost bus transportation. The college also partnered with a nearby four-year college to use dorms for students who may be facing housing insecurity.

Other colleges relied on Covid relief funds to offer these services. Benedict College used the funds to launch an application where students could apply for grants and get stipends.

From the applications, the college learned 31 percent of its students were housing insecure, allowing the college to help its students negotiate leases and pay for deposits and rent. It also learned 12 percent of their students came from areas that didn’t have broadband and 14 percent of their students were parents.

“We have this rich database now of all of the things that disrupt students’ matriculation: A car repair bill, food insecurity, child care issues, homelessness, access to internet,” Artis said, adding that she saw a 12 percent increase in student retention during the first year of the pandemic. Without the additional funding, the college is looking for ways to maintain their programs and Artis is advocating for doubling the Pell Grant, one of Biden’s campaign trail promises.

“When you’re able to eliminate barriers to persistence … [students are] successful, they persist,” she said.

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