Food banks are expected to be found in churches or women’s shelters, but they are becoming more and more common at a place where most don’t consider “impoverished” or “needy” people dwelling: colleges and universities in the United States. While there have always been need-based scholarships that help indigent students achieve higher learning, it seems the gap between those who can afford college, and those who cannot, is widening. But something else is widening, too, the space that used to belong to the middle class. It’s hardly recognizable anymore, which is problematic to not just the middle class and needy, but the entire financial and production infrastructure of the United States. All the baby-boomers are retiring, and if students are not able to afford to finish their college degrees, how will the United States have an educated, capable workforce?
Tom Mortenson, a senior scholar at The Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education in Washington, says that average median income is declining. That generally becomes noticeably problematic when it’s time for a high school graduate in the family to achieve higher education, according to Business Insider.
“There is good progress in high school retention and graduation for low income kids. Then these enormous financial barriers just clobber them when they get to college. Median family income has been declining at the time when college tuition costs have been steadily rising.”
How this plays out, ultimately, is in looking at statistics of who is graduating from college. In 2014, one study showed that nearly three quarters of students of the upper-class graduated with a degree from college, while only one quarter of the lower socioeconomic class did so. And as more and more middle-class families fall off into the lower socioeconomic range, this means that college completion and earning a degree will significantly drop. This has been an issue that has been steadily increasing over time.
Susan Dynarski at the University of Michigan has studied the college-completion gap between the students from the highest- and lowest-income brackets of the population. The gap between those two socioeconomic groups was about 45 points for students born in the 1970s and early 1980s, a dramatic increase from about 30 points for those born in the early 1960s. But even if college is free for low-income students, such as in the case of a scholarship, you still see far less students attending and graduating than the upper socioeconomic class.
“In places that have made college free for low-income kids, you still see big gaps in the [college entry] and graduation rates of low-income versus high-income kids.”
This is likely due to the fact that lower-income young adults must work full time to afford food, housing and transportation, which leaves precious little time for class attendance or studying. Many choose to join the workforce immediately in order to get some type of health insurance or financial stability in their lives. To illustrate the conundrum, many families that are earning less than $30,000 a year are living off of debt in order to make ends meet, but a college tuition for one of their children may comprise up to 70 percent of the earnings. There is no way that the family can afford that, so culture may come into play; college is not really discussed, and children do not plan on attending college. This mindset can become pervasive throughout lower income communities.
Currently, randomized studies show that one in five college students are routinely hungry. That means that even if they are living off financial aid and student loans to attend school, they’re going to bed with an empty stomach. In order to combat this problem, some experts have advised that the federal free lunch program include college students who meet the income criteria. It may not solve all the problems, but it is a start.
[Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images]