My financial aid for my last year of college was drastically different than my first couple of years. For the first time, I owed the institution money. This change in aid hit me hard. I made the decision to live off campus, instead of on-campus with a full meal plan like I had done previously. Off-campus with no meal plan was cheaper. But no meal plan meant that food was scarce. For the first two weeks of the semester I lived off of leftovers I brought from back home. One month, I’d have enough food for the month and another month I wouldn’t have enough food for a week. Given my own experience, it’s no surprise to me when I see statistics like 47% of Black students at 4-year institutions face food-insecurity. And food insecurity makes it harder to keep up with classes, work, and everything else. The 2016 Hunger on Campus Report showed that the 81% of students who faced food insecurity reported they did not perform as well in their classes.
Higher Learning Advocates released a report that showed that Black students graduate at a lower rates than their counterparts, have more loan debt, and are the most likely to default on loans compared to their counterparts from other racial backgrounds. These statistics are startling, but given my experience, I think helping Black students meet their basic needs, like food and housing, might be part of the solution. I’ve struggled with food insecurity for one year, but I think about the other students like me who are struggling throughout all of college. How do we expect students to finish college when they’re struggling to eat? While the problem of food insecurity might not have been caused by the colleges, they should make a commitment to ensure students from disadvantaged and diverse backgrounds have equitable opportunities at matriculation, success, and completion.
It is also imperative that colleges recognize where their institutional policies and practices can exacerbate barriers that students face. While I was struggling with food insecurity, figuring out how to come up with the money that I owed my institution was burdensome. I was often asked when I was going to pay off the balance, as if it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind. Once, I was told to “just put it on a credit card.” The recommendation that I use a credit card to pay off the balance that I owed my institution ignored how credit and debt impacts Black families differently than other groups. We often do not come to college with established credit and are not willing to open a credit card to pay for unexpected expenses. I am very hesitant to open credit cards in fear of expenses piling up and not being able to pay them off because I’ve seen credit card debt impact family members. They end up in a revolving cycle of debt and stress.
As colleges focus on admitting a more racially and economically diverse student population, they must also focus on making sure these diverse students graduate and succeed. It’s important that they implement policies that exemplify a commitment to equity. For example, they should provide information about how to apply for federal SNAP benefits for those students not on meal plans to combat food insecurity. Institutions should also be held accountable for students’ success. Accreditation bodies should rethink quality measures and require quantitative data that is disaggregated by race. A school is only as successful as its most vulnerable population. If institutions continually come up short in supporting low income Black students, we need to consider what that means about the institution and higher education system as a whole.