Community colleges help students cope with rising inflation

In some places in California, gas prices exceed $6 a gallon. Across the country, American wallets are being hit, not just at the tank, but also in grocery stores and supermarkets, where inflation has driven prices even for basic commodities soaring.Dr. Karen Stout

“We are reaching inflation levels of the 1980s. This is historically unprecedented,” says Dr. Tatiana Melguizo, a professor at the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California, who studies the economics of the Higher Education. “What’s going to happen are these students, [especially those] caring for young children or families, they need to start putting [in] more hours of work to barely make ends meet, and as a result, they will commit less to college.

Melguizo says she worries that rising inflation could worsen the enrollment crisis that community colleges and higher education as a whole have faced since the start of the pandemic. Community colleges have seen an approximately 10% drop in enrollment nationwide since March 2020. Researchers say the best way to help students in times like this is to get creative and find ways to produce tangible and immediate relief for students while making meaningful and intentional effort. communicate about all the resources available to help them succeed.

“We are already a tense sector. Even before COVID and the loss of enrollment, we were always underfunded and our students were marginalized and neglected. Now you add COVID, you add inflation and other pressures, and an already strained sector is trying to absorb it all,” says Dr. Karen Stout, president of Achieving the Dream (ATD), a nonprofit network profit from more than 300 community colleges. dedicated to improving completion and closing achievement gaps.

Colleges inside and outside the ATD network have come up with clever ways to help students help them right away. Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Missouri, began offering free breakfast to all students in late February. Others, like Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, Calif., offer gas gift cards to students. Community colleges in transit areas often offer free or discounted transit passes.

“Many colleges are looking for ways to reduce textbook costs, using open educational resources, doing them strategically for all students at scale,” Stout says. “You can make an immediate difference when you decide to offer free breakfast or free textbooks.”

In a study conducted by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) at the University of Texas at Austin of community college students after COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic, 34% of community college students said that the pandemic had worsened their financial situation. . This same research also found that the majority of students were unaware of the many resources available to help them.

Research options online

As students continue to deal with rising gas prices and an increased need to work, they may seek online learning opportunities to continue, even as many campuses are fully back in person. While online courses can be a useful tool, Melguizo says the success of this programming may depend on institutional resources dedicated to online learning, such as investing in faculty training for online pedagogies, the working wireless connections and computers, and enough quiet space at home for students. to study.

“Online is tricky. As we know, many of our community college students at the time of the pandemic were in very close neighborhoods with multiple families sharing hotspots. It was nearly impossible for a working mother to do her job, take care of her children and have the internet [class]“, explains Melguizo. “That’s the reality for community college students, so we really need to think about how we can support them.”

These experiences can be isolating, Melguizo says, making it harder for students to bond with their institution and such experiences can contribute to students feeling less of a sense of belonging, all factors that contribute to retention. of a student.

Helping students develop a sense of connection online takes creativity and a deliberate effort to build relationships, says CCCSE CEO Dr. Linda Garcia.Dr. Linda GarciaDr. Linda Garcia

“When the student stops, he has already encountered difficulties,” says Garcia. “But what if colleges were more intentional about identifying those challenges before the student leaves? Because when they leave, it’s hard to get them to come back.

Garcia says it’s crucial for community college faculty and staff to reach out, early on, to ask important, personal questions “that have nothing to do with English classes or English classes. mathematics – it is about asking questions about the human”.

“I want to know what your current situation is and the challenges you’re having right now,” Garcia says. “We’re going to connect you to resources, we’re not going to leave you alone, we’ll help you get to the finish line.”

Some teachers have integrated resources into the assignments. Garcia gave an example: students have to go to the tutoring lab to get help on an assignment and have the work signed by the tutor.

“In previous focus groups, we had students saying, ‘I’m not going to tutor because it means I’m weak,’” says Garcia. “[The assignment example] made it mandatory, so now it’s not intimidating, because of the intentionality.

Meet basic needs

When faculty members are intentional about how they incorporate the use of available resources, it can help reduce the stigma of seeking help and can reveal barriers that students might otherwise be reluctant to share. . During a survey of basic student needs, CCCSE researchers heard many students say they would choose to forgo eating on days when they did not have class; they could only afford to eat a few times a week, so they kept their meals to coincide with school days to help them concentrate better during class.

Pantries are designed to help students with food insecurity, but these pantries often have limits on how many bags of food students can bring per week, and they are limited by the fact that they get enough donations. Students sometimes used food from the pantry for their children, leaving nothing for themselves.

“Students come [college to] succeed, they don’t come to failure,” says Garcia. “But there are things going on beyond the classroom that are preventing that success.”

In some states, companies like Target are paying workers up to $24 an hour, making the choice of choosing college over work that much harder for a student, especially when students are hungry.

“We are living in a critical period not only of rising inflation, but also of severe labor shortages. I think inflation will force more community college students to choose between higher paying jobs and education,” Stout says.

Melguizo says community colleges need to work even harder to demonstrate the additional earning potential that college degrees bring. “Students are overwhelmed, surviving, trying to stay afloat. If we lose them and don’t do something right away, the students won’t come back,” says Melguizo. “They’ll work more hours and start to think they don’t need that degree. We need to work with these students and their families to make them aware of the economic benefits of staying and working on [a degree] that will enrich their lives and give them a ticket to middle class status. Otherwise, in the long run, these students are losing millions of dollars in benefits over their lifetime.

That’s all the more reason for community colleges to strengthen and deepen their relationships with their students, says Garcia.

“Relationships matter, intentionality matters, making sure engagement is key,” says Garcia. “That’s what will help students cross the finish line.

This article originally appeared in the March 31, 2022 edition of Miscellaneous.

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