For Van Wilson, it was a moment of clarity. Having been asked by VCCS leadership to help shape Virginia’s community college response to the issue of food and housing insecurity, Dr. Wilson, VCCS associate vice-chancellor for student experience and strategic initiatives, learned of a conversation between a Virginia community college instructor and a student who was struggling in class. The student had trouble focusing during the meeting; he was staring at a granola bar on the desk. Finally, the instructor asked if the student wanted the bar. “Yes,” said the student, “I haven’t eaten in two days.”
“That confirmed my belief that we must totally re-think how we help give our students a better chance to succeed,” says Wilson.
Traditional student financial aid doesn’t address the full scope of student needs anymore. Growing numbers of college students are hungry and homeless.
“Our students face more than academic challenges; sometimes real life gets in the way,” Wilson adds.
At least 15 of Virginia’s community colleges operate free food pantries or arrange food deliveries for students in need.
Wilson emphasizes that work getting underway at the VCCS system office does not seek to replace or undermine efforts already in place at the college level. Wilson also notes he will reach out to local colleges to learn from their experience.
“Our colleges are responding to student needs with their first-hand knowledge of local circumstances and local resources, and we applaud those efforts,” says Wilson. “I hope that, as we learn more, we might be able to enlist regional or national partners and share economies of scale. Our goal is to boost knowledge and, hopefully, resources, not to impose solutions from Richmond.”
To aid in fact-finding, Wilson organized a meeting between VCCS leaders and Prof. Sara Goldrick-Rab, whose trailblazing research team at the University of Wisconsin focused a national spotlight on problems facing students in higher education.
Based on survey insights from more than 40,000 students in 20 states, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab reported in April that 42 percent of community college students experience food insecurity.
The same survey indicated that 12 percent of American community college students are homeless.
“We’ve just started to acknowledge that poverty is present in higher education,” said Goldrick-Rab. “Colleges can and should do more to connect students with social services and other resources that are not traditional academic considerations.”
Goldrick-Rab has recently moved her research operation to Temple University.
On October 4-5, financial aid administrators and other VCCS leaders will meet with Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, Senior Policy Analyst, Center for Law and Social Policy (CLASP) to learn about opportunities to connect our students to public benefits.
For Wilson, these meetings are just the beginning, noting “In addition to learning from our college leaders around Virginia, we will seek out national leaders and experts to boost our understanding.”
“We already know that higher education is a pathway to a better life, but it’s hard to concentrate in class when you’re hungry or homeless.”
**Virginia Community College students talk about challenges facing classmates – learn more here.
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