College students face hunger, poverty in economic climate

Problems stemming from budget cuts, increased costs of tuition and pay freezes have affected college campuses nationwide.

But according to several professors and nonprofit poverty assistance programs, there is another problem settling on college campuses — hunger.

Wick Sloane, a professor at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, said he has witnessed hunger and poverty among students in his classes.

“When going to class and doing homework is giving up part of (students’) paychecks that is very much needed, it seems like a crazy trade-off for people to be making in America in 2012.”

In a column he recently wrote for Inside Higher Education, Sloane said a portion of the country’s $978 million in funds directed toward work-study programs should instead be restructured, giving students money for studying instead of working. But Sloane admitted that he doubts his proposal would ever be considered.

“I’m not sure any of us want to believe that poverty can be this severe on our campuses,” he said. “The poverty situation is getting worse … you notice that you’re spending more time referring students to food stamps than you are teaching. That’s a signal that something’s out of balance.”

Amy Levin, a professor at Northern Illinois University, said she also sees many of her students turning up to class too hungry to concentrate and too tired to focus. Like Sloane, she finds that the problem is not being recognized in her community.

“One of the problems is that we can’t even put our finger on it — it’s so invisible sometimes,” she said.

“From my perspective, I know it’s larger than it appears.”

Levin said she’s aware of similar situations in several other states, including Indiana, Colorado and Kentucky.

But problems of hunger and poverty are often problems that can’t be resolved by the university, she said.

These situations can seem hopeless, Levin said.

“You can’t get quality education if you’re not even making the most basic human needs,” Levin said.

Nate Falkner, vice president of strategy for Single Stop USA, said there is a common misconception that students who can afford a college education can afford food.

“We built these (higher education) institutions for 1950s students who were coming from middle-class homes,” Falkner said. “They weren’t the same demographic that we see today, and I think people really still hold that fundamental misconception about who students are and what they need.”

Falkner said Single Stop, a nonprofit that focuses on poverty prevention, has helped more than 20,000 students in the last year access more than $40 million in federal resources across seven states. The program does not currently work in North Carolina.

Falkner said the program has considered expanding to North Carolina, but it doesn’t have set plans in the near future.

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