Students Helping Students To Alleviate The Hidden Costs Of College
This article was previously published on Forbes
By Yanelle Cruz Bonilla
Imagine having missed your last few meals: your stomach is rumbling, you’re hungry, but you have to take a final college exam. Would you be able to concentrate fully? Well, that’s the reality 1 in 10 community college students face. What’s more, a report released by Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that 36% of students suffer from food insecurity while in school.
Unfortunately, hunger is not the only hidden cost associated with higher education that students face. The report also found that 46% of community college students and 36% of university students struggle to pay for housing and utilities. Additionally, about 12% of community college students struggle with homelessness at the same time they are trying to earn a degree.
Access to things we may take for granted—such as food, money for laundry, and appropriate clothes for an interview—can severely diminish a student’s college experience. Some are forced to grapple with stressful situations like having to choose between spending money on a meal or buying a bus ticket to attend class. Many have to work full-time jobs while enrolled in school to make ends meet. Despite these financial burdens, many community college students are resilient and have found ways to address them.
On many community college campuses, student leaders are stepping up to help their student colleagues overcome these financial barriers so they can focus on their studies and have a better chance of completing their course of study. Here are just three examples:
Panther’s Closet, Palm Beach State College, Florida
Panther’s Closet is a student-run thrift store with quality items priced at just $1. The proceeds benefit other student programs in the college. PBSC student Marshelle Davis and the founding team immersed themselves in developing policies and procedures, conducting market research, and recruiting student participants to make sure Panther’s Closet was set up for success when it opened.
Eventually, Davis became the store manager and handled daily operations as well as personnel training and scheduling. “Having been a single mother for over a decade who has struggled with poverty my entire life, I felt compelled to sacrifice the time and effort required to enable my classmates to provide a basic necessity for themselves and their families,” Davis said.
Since its opening, the store has cultivated a culture of giving on campus and in the surrounding community. For instance, upon learning students were foregoing their commencement ceremony due to the cost of caps and gowns, the student team at Panther’s Closet organized a cap and gown drive. “I spent an entire day at PBSC’s two commencement ceremonies collecting donations. Now, graduating students look for the Panther’s Closet bins at graduation and even make special visits back to campus to donate their caps and gowns,” Davis said.
“We understand the importance of giving back. We understand that we are better not just because of what we do for ourselves, but what we do for others,” Ava L. Parker, PBSC President, said.
Resource and Support Center, Century College, Minnesota
Century College student An Garagiola-Bernier read the Wisconsin HOPE Lab report and found the results shocking. “That fall, as the editor of a campus news magazine, I ran a series on student poverty, and what Century was doing [to alleviate it]. I soon realized there were a lot of great resources, but they were scattered across campus. Students in crisis don’t have time—or the resources—to run all over tracking this stuff down. I started publishing a list of them in the back of the magazine so students in need could at least know that help existed,” Garagiola-Bernier said.
Garagiola-Bernier wanted to do more, so she expressed her desire to a counselor at Century College, who created a work-study position that allowed Garagiola-Bernier to focus on the creation of a new resource center. In early 2016, a spare classroom was converted into Century College’s Resource and Support Center. Having the college’s support allowed for the center to open quickly, and soon many organizations were reaching out to Garagiola-Bernier to establish partnerships.
The goal of the center is to connect students with a range of community resources and services offered at Century College. Inside the center, students may find a variety of services such as a free food shelf, legal assistance services, mental health resources, and financial assistance for child care programs.
“Part of my job was to assess the need and it was really emotional. I surveyed and interviewed 100 students. The stories I heard broke my heart and cemented my academic path. I listened and cried with students who talked of sleeping in parks or living in houses without heat and roofs,” Garagiola-Bernier said. At the same time, these stories filled her with pride because it was remarkable to see students excel despite so many significant challenges.
Today, the center runs on a work study and internship model. Students get paid for managing daily operations of the center because as Garagiola-Bernier said, “we believe that paying students for their work is crucial in environments where so many are near the poverty line.”
Food Pantry, Schoolcraft College, Michigan
Maria Cielito Robles was in the midst of deciding her honors capstone project when she learned Schoolcraft College had a desire to open a food pantry at their satellite campus. “Assisting in the launch of the food pantry felt like a full-circle experience in that I would be able to help launch a project helping students with experiences similar to the ones that I had growing up. I felt an immediate personal connection to the project and its purpose,” Robles said.
Administrative staff, teaching faculty, and Robles’s classmates offered their support throughout the process leading up to the opening of the food pantry. College administration officials also designated a space on campus with several shelves for the food pantry. Robles placed donation bins in high traffic areas on campus and spent much of her time collecting those items.
“A lot of my days included walking around collecting from the bins and weighing the items, and then placing them accordingly on the shelves,” Robles said. Because most of her classes were at the main campus, Robles actually spent a lot of time driving between both campuses to ensure that donations were picked up and stored properly. When the pantry opened in the fall of 2013, Robles was managing it on her own, but after she approached a service learning class, she began to have some help.
Five years since its opening, the food pantry is still running and helping students suffering from food insecurity. What once began as an honors capstone project, turned into a legacy that helps all Schoolcraft College student prevent food insecurity. For Robles, hearing the stories of how the project impacted people is the most rewarding part of it all. “A couple of years after graduation, I visited the Honors Program director and she shared with me how my involvement with the food pantry and working with her service learning class was one of the most inspiring and profound service learning semesters in her career,” Robles said.
In addition to covering tuition and fees, a growing number of College Promise programs also cover some of the other significant costs of attending college, things like textbooks, transportation, food and rent. For example, The Dallas County College Promise partnered with the City of Dallas to offer transportation vouchers for students.
College Promise programs should consider finding ways to aid students who are burdened by these hidden costs. The price tag of attending college far exceeds tuition and fees. No student should be denied the opportunity of starting or completing a college education because they can’t afford to pay for the essential costs of attendance.
It’s time to address all the hidden costs of attending college and help our nation’s students alleviate them.
To find out more about the ways College Promise programs address financial barriers to education, log onto the the College Promise Campaign website: collegepromise.org/start.