Editorial: Community college students have little margin for financial setbacks

·3 min read

Community colleges have long offered an affordable, manageable way for people to get ahead in life, whether new high school grads pursuing an advanced degree, mid-career professionals seeking new skills or older adults who want to change their lives for the better.

Now, though, we must add studying at a community college to the list of things that the COVID pandemic has made a lot tougher.

The Virginia Community College System wisely decided to take advantage of a survey developed a few years ago at Temple University, offering officials ample data to show the enormity of the challenges many students face.

The survey, designed to help school officials assess the insecurities students face in such basic needs as food and housing, has been used at hundreds of colleges. Having that knowledge should be a big step toward making things better for community college students in the commonwealth.

The results of the survey of 11,000 students, released early in June, show that 42% of students struggled to pay for housing and 32% had trouble paying for food. One in 10 students surveyed had been homeless in the past year.

The community college system had decided to use the survey before the pandemic hit. It’s likely that the results would have shown considerable need among students anyway, but because the survey was conducted last fall during the COVID disruption, the results clearly illustrate the pandemic’s impact.

Through no fault of their own, young people just starting out and mid-career workers looking for new opportunities over the past year or so have faced daunting problems, so daunting that many no doubt abandoned their efforts to improve their lives.

When money for such basic necessities is lacking, students can’t pay for other things such as gas so they can get to class or child care if it’s needed. Trying to go to classes and get school work done can easily become overwhelming for people who don’t have a place to live or know where their next meal is coming from.

The survey also gave some insight into health and emotional problems, as well as the racial inequities that pervade our society. Black students were three times more likely than white to have lost a close friend or loved one to COVID.

One of the survey’s most important findings is that most students did not take advantage of various financial, food and other support programs that are available. Some weren’t aware of the programs. Some didn’t think they were eligible. Some didn’t understand how to apply. Some were embarrassed to seek help.

That finding suggests at least one way the community college system can use the insights it has gained to make things better. The system has already made some changes, including an online screening tool to help students check eligibility for state and federal benefits. In its first four to five months, the tool helped more than 1,000 students secure nearly $2 billion in benefits. Other suggestions include talking about benefit programs doing student orientation and trying to connect students with mental-health support.

It’s distressing to think the pandemic may have deprived recent high school graduates of their chance to get a good start in life through a community college education. It’s equally troubling to think of older students who were denied a fresh start, particularly when COVID threw so many people out of work and made others realize how bleak the prospects are in their current line of work.

The effects could be wide ranging, for the would-be students and also for families, communities and the workplace, and could have serious, long-lasting implications.

The pandemic illuminated numerous ways in which the margin between success and failure is razor thin, such as this, and it is here where our efforts in the aftermath of this public health emergency should be focused as we seek to extend the promise of opportunity to more people.

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