By J. Noah Brown.
J. Noah Brown is the president and chief executive officer of the Association of Community College Trustees, and chair of the College Promise Executive Board.
Many community college students live with profound financial hardships, coming from households with lower than average incomes and with little to no money saved for college. A great number of community college students must work while attending classes to financially support themselves and their families, and most experience greater economic disadvantages than their more affluent four-year university counterparts.
College Promise programs that help cover more than the costs of tuition and fees are not luxuries or privileges for these students; they are necessary to help many students make ends just barely meet for long enough to complete a college education, after which most graduates’ economic stability can improve dramatically.
Over the past couple of years, the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) has partnered with researcher Sara Goldrick-Rab and her colleagues at the Wisconsin HOPE lab and the Temple University HOPE Center to find out how many community college students are homeless or go hungry, and how this affects their academic progress. The findings have been startling.
Two of our studies found that an average 13-14% of community college students were homeless, and about half were housing insecure. Worse, 29% of former foster youth—who are more likely to attend community colleges than four-year universities for a variety of reasons—were homeless. In our 2015 study, half of community college students reported being food insecure. In our more comprehensive 2016 study, two-thirds reported being food insecure. These statistics are staggering, and they illustrate the tremendous unmet needs of a great proportion of American college students.
These challenging circumstances are a primary reason why a great many community college students never complete a certificate or associate degree at a community college or transfer to attain a bachelor’s degree. Most people who are forced to choose between basic needs and college expenses will choose to meet their basic needs. Students with children have an even more dire choice and almost always will choose work instead of school to provide for their children. 30% of community college students are parents; if we want to improve graduation and transfer rates and, more importantly, tap into the intellectual potential of our country, then we cannot afford to overlook this population.
College Promise programs not only take financial pressure off the most disadvantaged students, but they can keep students from having to choose between sleeping in a car and attending classes. For many students, College Promise programs can prevent the dire choice between eating cheap, unhealthfy food once a day and paying for expensive textbooks. These choices are a daily reality for many of our students—inexcusably so—and because meeting basic needs must always come first, most of these students are unable to complete college, regardless of their intellects, work ethics, interests and ambitions.
We know that great minds come from all strata of society—and we can expect that most great minds that are not cultivated by the educational system will fail to reach their potential. These are lost human potentials, intellectual potentials, and economic potentials. Our nation cannot afford these lost potentials.
Thanks to new insights, we understand that College Promise programs represent the next great evolution in making our people better educated and our nation as a whole better. National education systems are litmus tests of national values. College Promise programs hold great potential for our great nation. Now that we know, we can’t afford not to invest in them.