Basic needs go unmet for many NJ college students

Briana Vannozzi, Anchor | February 19, 2020 | Education, Politics

A new study shows that nearly half of students at community colleges in New Jersey have suffered over the past year for lack of basic needs, like food, income and shelter.

Stephanie Rim, a graduate of Bergen Community, is a case in point.

“I remember working four part-time jobs and never having the luxury of sitting down to focus on my academics,” said the Bergen Community College graduate. “I had to study through the pictures I took of my textbooks and finish my assignments on my phone while at work.”

As part of the nation’s largest assessment of basic-needs security among college students, the #RealCollege Survey from the Hope Center for College, Community, & Justice gathered data from 9,000 students at 17 of New Jersey’s community colleges.

The resulting report shows 39% of students were food insecure in the last 30 days, 44% were considered housing insecure in the previous year, and 14% said they been affected by homelessness, experiencing circumstances ranging from couch surfing with friends to having no permanent home to return to.

“When people say ‘I went to college,’ generally you’re thinking about living in a dorm, going to nice buildings, and having a meal plan,” said Christine Baker-Smith, managing director of the Hope Center, which is affiliated with Temple University. “That’s not the reality of college today.”

In surveys, students were asked questions like whether they were worried their food would run out before they could afford to buy more, or whether they had spent time living in an outdoor location or vehicle.

The results of the study were the focus of an event Wednesday at Bergen Community, featuring students, representatives of the Hope Center and state officials.

“I’ve heard this when I would do student roundtables,” said Zakiya Smith Ellis, the commissioner for Higher Education in Gov. Phil Murphy’s cabinet. “Students would mention sleeping in their cars … not knowing where their next meal is going to come from. So to have some real data behind it, this really matches what we’ve heard on the ground.”

Others, too, said the findings of the study matched their experience.

“We know for example students of color, returning college students, student parents all have higher rates of housing and food insecurity,” said Rosa Garcia of the Center for Law and Social Policy, a think tank focused on the needs of low-income people.

The study showed 52% of black students reported experiencing food insecurity compared with 33% of their white peers. What’s worse, experts say students are severely under utilizing public assistance available to them, like SNAP nutrition benefits or housing vouchers.

“We are working with our colleagues in Higher Education to do training for financial aid counselors at colleges across the state on our social-service programs,” said Carole Johnson, the commissioner of the Department of Human Services, “so that the people students turn to when they need financial assistance also know about our social services.”

Rim, the former BCC student, said it can be hard to seek assistance.

“You have to be very honest about yourself and accept that you are in a place where you do need help,” she said. “There should never be any stigma about that.”

Leaders with the world of higher education say they’ll use this data to inform new policies.

“Hunger Free NJ and Anti-Poverty Network of NJ are two organizations that have agreed to work with us, but there are many more reaching out,” said Aaron Fichtner, president of the N.J. Council of County Colleges. “We welcome all to join us to make sure all of our students’ basic needs are taken care of.”

Among the recommendations of the Hope Center is for schools to take stock of existing supports available to students, such as food pantries, emergency aid and public benefits and to be sure that students know about their availability and how to access them.