The phrase “poor college student” has long been part of our academic lexicon; from manuals like The Starving Students’ Cookbook to websites such as PoorCollegeStudent, we’ve long made light of the notion that college students face economic challenges. Tired old jokes about ramen noodles, cheap beer, and bad roommates are the stock-in-trade of our collective understanding of college student poverty.
But those jokes lose their humor when faced with the fact that many college students today are often life-threateningly poor: so poor they may not have a place to sleep at night.
In the late 1980s, I was a poor student and had to navigate some pretty difficult financial realities while in college, but my situation was nothing like that of some of my students, who often fall asleep in class because they work all night at a minimum wage job—which also prevents them from succeeding academically.
The reality of poverty among college students today was painfully brought home to me by my own students, comprised of a financial mix. Many come from the wealthy suburbs of Boston; they spend two years in community college to raise their grades and save some tuition money before transferring to pricier schools like Boston College.
But other students come from areas of both concentrated and diffused poverty around the greater Boston area (such as those outlined in this TCF report on concentrated poverty).
I will never forget one of my students, whose tragic situation completely altered my view of college students today. This young man continually came to class late, failed to turn in papers, and fell asleep in class. I summoned him to my office for a discussion, and when he arrived, he simply burst into tears. He was exhausted, starving, and sick.
His story was already heartbreaking: a random victim of a drive-by-shooting, he was paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. Thinking he could save money, he moved from a small one-bedroom to a new apartment with a roommate, who decided within a month they didn’t want a roommate after all.
Unable to find an apartment that would accommodate his wheelchair, my student was left homeless, sleeping in his car in the school parking lot. February in New England is possibly the worst time to be homeless, and his health had rapidly deteriorated from exposure to the cold, malnutrition, and stress.
I had no idea. I teach about 125 students every semester, seeing them only a few times a week for brief class sessions. As this tough young man fought back tears, and finally lost that fight while speaking with me in my office, I realized poverty among college students today is nothing to joke about. This student would have been grateful for a hot bowl of ramen noodles, or even the worst roommate. Frantic, I ran all over the school to various offices, searching for some financial support that could help him.
But community colleges, the most affordable higher education option in the nation, already struggle to cover their expenses, and there is little in the way of emergency funding or housing for students, beyond temporary book loans.
Nor does our government provide much assistance for college students. In fact, individuals may lose eligibility for Section 8 housing assistance if they are even enrolled in a college program, which effectively penalizes people for trying to climb out of poverty.
A recent research brief from the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Post-Secondary Education noted that housing insecurity was among the greatest challenges college students face today.
I wish I could report that this one student was an anomaly, a single sad story in the midst of many successful students. But he’s not. Every semester, I deal with more and more homeless, undernourished, and poor students who fail my courses because they cannot afford even the cheap textbooks I assign or are too exhausted or stressed to manage schoolwork.
We really shouldn’t wonder why so many students drop out of college when so many of today’s students are single parents struggling to pay the rent and feed their children, or are thrown out of the house because their parents don’t think a 20-year-old should be living at home.
The struggles to not only pay for school but to also finance basic life-sustaining expenses is becoming too difficult for far too many students. And it’s no laughing matter.