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Outlook: Hungry to Learn
Outlook: Hungry to Learn

Everyday financial strains threaten many students’ pursuit of a college degree

By Susie Brubaker-Cole , Mike Moran


A. Richard Allen



A growing number of college students aren't bright-eyed, newly minted high school graduates. They're seasoned adults with greater financial responsibilities, including a family of their own.

The U.S. Department of Education projects that from 2012 to 2022 enrollment for 18- to 24-year-olds will increase 9 percent, whereas the number of students 35 and older will grow by 23 percent. These older students are more likely to lead complex lives as parents and caregivers for elders. What do they need to persist toward their educational goals? Tuition, books, and supplies? Yes, plus affordable child care, low-cost apartment-style housing, and economical, nutritious food sources.

Too many college students already face a choice between paying for rent or textbooks, food or tuition. In 2015, the Wisconsin Hope Lab, a University of Wisconsin research group that studies college affordability, surveyed 1,007 low- and moderate-income students at 10 Wisconsin colleges and universities. Thirty percent of respondents reported not being able to afford food even when hungry. Another Hope Lab survey of more than 4,000 undergraduates at 10 U.S. community colleges found that half of respondents were struggling with food or housing insecurity-or both. A full 13 percent were homeless. Despite working part- or full-time jobs and receiving financial aid, many students are facing insurmountable hurdles to higher education and are dropping out.

To address hunger, some institutions, including Oregon State University, operate food pantries and assist students in applying for food stamps. Others offer food voucher programs and enable students to donate unused meal plan credits to others in need.

How else should higher education respond to these challenges? Containing tuition costs certainly helps. Addressing the full cost of attendance—including expenses for housing, food, and dependent care—is critical.

At OSU, in-state students have, on average, an unmet need of $7,256 each year. In-state students who are Pell Grant-eligible face a $9,601 average annual shortfall. Traditional assistance, such as scholarships, is not enough. Historically, institutions haven't provided or raised money for basic human services, but to fully support students' academic goals, we need to broaden our thinking.

Donors want to help

In addition to our food pantry, OSU is helping vulnerable students through the newly established Persistence Fund.

Institutional data tells us that first-year students who have financial need (especially first-generation college students) and are not thriving academically are at risk of not returning for their second year. We identified these freshmen, defined as those with a GPA from 2.0 to 3.0, and approached one of our most progressive donors to underwrite $500 scholarships to 100 of these students. The awards, which include additional academic advising, encourage students to stay enrolled and signal that we're invested in their success.

At the end of the spring 2016 term, using money from the Persistence Fund, we awarded the first High Promise Scholarships, which totaled $1,000 apiece once the deans of each student's school matched the donor's contribution. We eagerly await fall term academic outcomes to see how successful the initiative was.

This pilot program addresses just a sliver of students' unmet financial needs, and much work remains to ensure they graduate. But we're heartened at the donor's support, including another $50,000 contribution to an emergency fund for students facing unexpected financial crises.

Champion the cause

Here's how to work with donors to support needy students:

Educate. Clearly describe current and future students' financial realities—citing the disheartening statistics—because donors may not realize the challenges. Many OSU alumni recall earning a year's tuition by working a summer agricultural or logging job. While our tuition remains reasonable, today's students couldn't possibly pay it with summer wages.

Engage. Tell donors the stories of students on the financial brink. We've produced video testimonials from those being helped by the High Promise Scholarships. In the future, we will enable alumni to support these students with their mentorship, expertise, and social service connections.

Innovate. Garner support for academic offerings targeted to working students and parents, such as flexible online courses, which are expensive to produce. Likewise, experiential learning opportunities, such as internships and study abroad, contribute to student retention and success but are sometimes out of reach for working students and others in need.

By addressing the true cost of students' attendance and providing the support and tools they need to succeed, we position our institutions as responsive leaders expanding access to higher learning.

About the Authors Susie Brubaker-Cole

Susie Brubaker-Cole is vice provost for student affairs at Oregon State University.

Mike Moran

Mike Moran is director of development for scholarships and university initiatives for the Oregon State University Foundation.

 

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