New report finds community college students struggling to afford basic needs, highlights institutional support

Nearly a third of community college students (29%) are facing food insecurity, while 14% are housing-insecure, according to a new report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement. Based on data from a spring 2021 survey of 82,424 students at 194 community and technical colleges, the report says that, for those institutions, helping students meet these basic needs is “mission critical.”

Almost seven in 10 respondents (69%) said a lack of finances could cause them to withdraw from college. Student-parents, low-income students, and students of color were more likely than their peers to be vulnerable not only to food and housing insecurity but also to a lack of access to affordable child care, physical and mental health care, technology, and transportation.

Addressing these needs is “essential,” the authors of the report say, “to bringing back the students who were forced to stop out, better supporting those who stayed in college even though they were struggling, and ensuring that all students are well positioned to succeed.”

“What’s clear from our report,” says the center’s executive director Linda García in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “is that some community-college students are in a perilous position that may affect their ability to stay enrolled in college and complete their goals.”

Related: Benefits navigators offer support to college students struggling to meet basic needs >

Helping students

The new report profiled several colleges that are working to meet students’ basic needs by providing food, housing, and transportation assistance, including Arizona’s Maricopa Community College District, which provides drive-up food distribution for students, their families, and their communities; and Missouri’s Ozarks Technical Community College, which offers individuals with a valid student ID free breakfasts every weekday. The Student Advocacy & Resource Center at Northwest Vista College in Texas also connects students in need with emergency aid, free mental health counseling, and help accessing personal care items.

Other schools are creating programs to help students find affordable, equitable access to transportation, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. To reduce transportation barriers, North Carolina’s Lenoir Community College started the Cars for College program in 2019, which, thanks to a $250,000 donation, provides low-income students with access to safe, affordable, reconditioned vehicles. 

The organization purchases most of the cars, with 35% of the vehicles received through donations. Lenoir Community College’s automotive program refurbishes the vehicles, which are then sold to students at cost for an average of $3,080. Through a partnership with a local credit union, Cars for College also guarantees loans for students who need additional financial assistance.

Related: Transportation access top of mind for campus leaders >

Scaling a program like Cars for College can be expensive, especially with the cost of used vehicles rising 40.5% from January 2021 to January 2022. Other institutions are partnering with local entities to expand public transit access. A $1 million federal grant to the Los Angeles Community College District allows students attending community colleges in Los Angeles County to ride Metro for free through the 2022-23 academic year. In southwestern Virginia, Four County Transit offers shuttle transportation to and from three colleges—Southwest Virginia Community College, Mountain Empire Community College, and the University of Virginia College at Wise.

Jeanne M. Kennedy, executive director for Cars for College, tells The Chronicle that reducing transportation barriers can have a ripple effect on college students’ lives. “When you have a student who has not had any reliable transportation and they get reliable transportation,” she says, “life is so much better for their whole family.”

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