Op Ed

Many College Students Are Hungry, Homeless

MATC faculty starts fund to help students, holding benefit on February 15.

By - Jan 31st, 2019 03:26 pm
Milwaukee Area Technical College. Photo by Carl Baehr.

Milwaukee Area Technical College. Photo by Carl Baehr.

As Rosalind walked across the stage of the Milwaukee Area Technical College’s (MATC) December graduation, she thought back to the spring. A victim of domestic violence, Rosalind was then homeless, living in her car. She had just flunked an exam. Her academic and professional future seemed in doubt.

Her instructor had asked this “A” student why she had done so poorly. Learning that Rosalind was homeless, she called the Local 212/MATC Believe in Students FAST Fund. The FAST Fund paid her security deposit for an apartment near the hospital where she worked. With stable housing, Rosalind’s grades bounced back.

Rather than dropping out or failing, Rosalind was now graduating as a Registered Nurse with a $28 an hour job.

Rosalind is just one of 104 MATC students that the FAST (Faculty and Students Together) Fund helped last year. Inspired by Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab’s research on college student housing and food insecurity, MATC’s faculty union organized the emergency, non-profit FAST Fund because instructors know that students who are homeless or hungry cannot focus on their school work.

Nationally 10% of college students are homeless; almost 50% periodically go without food. The Government Accountability Office just released a report documenting food insecurity as a major problem among college students nationally.

The numbers are significantly higher at MATC. Fully 45% of the students helped by the FAST Fund are homeless, couch surfing or threatened with eviction. A survey by MATC reports that 50% of students don’t have enough to eat while 21% are housing-insecure.

Economic deprivation prevents many MATC students from obtaining the education necessary to secure family-supporting employment. Although 72% of MATC’s student rely on Pell Grants, a federal program, to help pay for their education, grants and federal financial aid fall far short of covering education costs: tuition, books, tools, computers, housing, transportation and food. Pell Grants once covered 100% of the cost of attending a two-year college but now cover barely 60%.

Most MATC students are adults juggling school, work and family responsibilities. Many work more than one job because wages are so low. When an emergency strikes, they don’t have discretionary  income or support systems to overcome them and are thus forced to choose between paying rent, energy bills or eating. This challenge is even worse for parent-students. If students prioritize buying groceries, they risk eviction. If they pay their rent, they and their kids go hungry.

Wisconsin needs an educated and skilled labor force. Yet, financial aid policies are making it harder for poor and even middle class students to obtain an education despite the fact that education is a positive externality that benefits students, employers and the community. Several policies changes would help.

The U.S. should follow the lead of other advanced democracies and make college free. Short of that, Pell Grants must be substantially increased. College attendance should not result in a lifetime of debt.

The Education Department should clarify rules so that college financial aid departments don’t count emergency aid against students’ federal financial aid packages. The current practice of doing so undermines the very purpose of emergency aid.

The federal rule denying financial aid to students who have taken 150% of the credits needed to graduate should be modified so that students like Beverly, who earned a degree in Human Services and is now trying to better herself by pursuing an RN degree, are not denied the opportunity. The current law prevents students from pursuing an authentic education after they’ve been lured into exhausting their financial aid by diploma mills such as ITT Tech, Sanford Brown and Everest College.

Wisconsin should join the twenty states including Tennessee, Minnesota, Indiana and Arkansas that provide free tuition for community college attendance.

Locally, Milwaukeeans could support the FAST Fund by attending the FAST Fund’s First Annual Gala and Silent Auction on February 15th at the Milwaukee Brewing Company.

The Bucks, Packers, Brewers, Next Act Theater, and many area restaurants, businesses and coffee shops have signed on to support the Gala. To donate or sponsor, call 414-467-8908.

Michael Rosen is a former Wisconsin Technical College System state board member and retired Milwaukee Area Technical College economics instructor.

Categories: Education, Op-Ed

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