Today’s community college students face many of the same challenges their predecessors did in balancing work, school and family. It is becoming increasingly clear they are also dealing with a new obstacle: hunger.
A recent survey of enrollees at North Shore Community College found that a third sometimes go without food, and nearly 70 percent have trouble getting access to regular meals or affordable housing.
NSCC President Patricia Gentile said school administrators were “shocked and disturbed” by the findings. “Students cannot study or achieve academic success if they are hungry or homeless,” she said.
It’s not just a problem for the students -- it’s an issue for the North Shore business community, which wants an educated workforce. That can’t happen if students are forced to drop out of school to feed themselves.
The overall numbers are striking:
-- 32.1 percent of NSCC students describe themselves as “hungry,” as compared to 20 percent of students nationally.
-- 53.5 percent of the school’s 6,100 students were found to have a low or very low level of “food security.”
-- 19.1 percent are considered “homeless,” or at the lowest level of housing security.
Those most affected, it seems, are the students most reliant on education to improve their lot in life.
“The rising cost of a college education and the increasing number of nontraditional students mean that more students are living on a shoestring budget,” wrote the authors of the 2016 national report “Hunger on Campus.”
“Many of today’s students must find a way to provide for their own living expenses while also paying for their education,” the authors wrote. “Contrary to the stereotype, today’s typical student is not a recent high school graduate who lives in a dormitory and is supported by his or her parents. Fewer than one in four students could be categorized as having parents who are able to pay all of their college expenses.”
That’s certainly true for Stacey Fernandes, a student at NSCC’s Danvers campus. The 30-year-old mother of two takes three classes a week as she works toward a career in human services.
“This is really my first chance to have a good go at school,” she told reporter John Castelluccio. “I am going to school while they (her kids) are in school.”
Going to school while raising two small children doesn’t leave much time for work. “I don’t have an income right now,” she said.
Fernandes is in the same spot as many community college students, being forced to choose between taking a menial job to barely pay the bills or investing in an education that will help secure their financial future.
Solving the problem will take work.
NSCC has been a leader in addressing the issue in the short term, partnering with the Greater Boston Food Bank, the Open Door and Beverly Bootstraps to set up monthly mobile markets on campus, giving students ready access to fresh, healthy food. There’s no limit to what students can take, and there are no financial requirements or forms to fill out.
Other schools have programs that allow students to donate unused meal plans to those in need.
More must also be done to let students know about the state and federal aid programs available to them. “Students often do not know where or how to access benefit programs that could provide them with valuable assistance with needs like food, child care, rent, utilities, and medical care,” the Hunger on Campus authors note.
While those initiatives help deal with the problem in the short term, the larger issues of education costs and affordable housing must also be confronted. Too often, residents are forced to choose between school and a home.
Local business leaders rightly point out that there is a shortage of trained workers on the North Shore and across the region. In many cases, those workers are there, ready to learn the skills they need to advance their careers and better provide for their families. Hunger shouldn’t stand in their way.