When Michelle Nielsen, 46, decided to return to school at Houston Community College to become a pastry chef, she quickly discovered that she had no room in her budget for food. Even with financial aid covering her tuition and a work-study program to help with rent, Nielsen knew she wouldn’t be able to get by without extra help.
Nielsen swallowed her pride and accepted help in the form of a food scholarship offered by her school that distributes food to students twice a month.
“It took me awhile to say, you know what, you need the help,” Nielsen said. Having to work on an empty stomach is a distraction, she said.
Her food scholarship has eliminated the stress of finding ways to pay for food each month. Now, Nielsen can focus on learning how to pay for food as a chef.
Many schools across the country are implementing free tuition programs to alleviate students’ financial burden, but researchers have realized that college affordability means much more than tuition costs. Living costs are needed, too. While big-ticket items such as free tuition are often touted as a solution to students’ financial woes, longer-lasting impact may come from smaller steps that schools and even students are taking.
While free tuition has motivated more low-income students to consider higher education, it still isn’t truly affordable.
“When people think about affording college, they look at the sticker price,” said Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst at the research organization Demos. “I think that the free-college movement is a positive phenomenon. But, to have an equitable policy, you have to make sure the housing burden is covered.”
Many low-income students already receive financial aid to cover tuition. They need help with living expenses.
Many of free tuition programs are also offered only to those who fit specific criteria, and that can often exclude students, like Nielsen, who aren’t entering college right out of high school. Other schools may not provide coverage for part-time students.
Huelsman has studied the relationship between living costs, which includes food security, and a student’s ability to afford college for nearly a decade.
He said that while society has universally agreed that getting an education is crucial to finding a good job and obtaining self-worth, we haven’t applied the same consideration—making elementary and secondary education free—to higher education.
“We’ve never had the same conversation as we had with K-12,” Huelsman said. “We decided that we’re going to pull out public resources and make people pay for more and more.”
According to Huelsman’s research, before the 1990s, students weren’t borrowing money to attend college at anywhere near the rate they are now. The usual suspects for hikes in tuition costs, such as administrative bloat or the construction of athletic facilities and dormitories, don’t quite account for the huge increases in student tuition and debt. While most of students’ tuition dollars go to faculty salaries, the number of professors and administrative officials at these colleges hasn’t risen. If anything, it’s fallen.
Other research from Demos shows that the construction boom only accounts for five percent of tuition increases. The rise in costs also doesn’t apply to community colleges that don’t even have most of the amenities that four-year schools make available.
What does account for rising tuitions, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, is declining state support for college education. The 2008 recession hit the education budget hard, but funding for higher education remains 20 percent below the prerecession level.
States have competing priorities when it comes to budget spending, and education often falls at the bottom of the list. Huelsman said a solution could involve requiring states to invest more in education, and in return, the federal government would provide a certain amount of money that goes toward lowering tuition costs.
While he doesn’t believe the current administration will take to this solution, he is positive that the student debt loan crisis will continue to grow as a political issue that will put pressure on states and the federal government.
Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, said that states right now don’t have an incentive to change the status quo.
“A part of the reason states have defunded higher education is they’re not given reason not to,” Goldrick-Rab said.
Goldrick-Rab has devoted her research to quantifying college affordability and what students need to succeed at higher institutions. Before bringing her research to Temple University, Goldrick-Rab studied the issue in the now defunct Wisconsin HOPE Lab, where she gained much of the information she has now.
The Wisconsin lab reported that more than 50 percent of the community college students they surveyed did not have access to affordable food. Goldrick-Rab found that this had a significant impact on a student’s ability to afford school at all.
Their research has led the Hope Center to develop specific solutions that can be implemented at universities right now. Goldrick-Rab, who favors free tuition as a solution, has worked with schools to help them incorporate even the smallest of changes, such as including financial resources on class syllabi.
Ultimately, it’s about making direct contact with students to create programs that work for them.
Houston Community College is one of the schools Goldrick-Rab has been helping for the past year. Frances Villagran-Glover, the school’s associate vice chancellor, said the college has re-evaluated its focus to the students’ needs by holding summits in which they can discuss the difficulty they have paying for school.
The school’s financial coaches also work more closely with the students. Villagran-Glover said it’s about making students aware of the resources available.
From the school’s perspective, the focus needs to move from one piece of the student—tuition—to the whole student experience, she said. Not only must states prioritize education funding, but food and housing costs must be considered when making college more affordable.
Villagran-Glover said she shared the Hope Lab’s research to her college’s board when they set up the food scholarship program in partnership with the Houston Food Bank. The scholarship acts as a pilot program to determine the best solutions in making college affordable. Goldrick-Rab next wants to study larger issues such as housing for low-income students.
The more that college campuses begin discussing college affordability, the better the chance for more sustainable solutions to come to fruition. Villagran-Glover believes policy makers can’t avoid the conversation much longer.
“It’s not a new issue, but there was never a national platform,” Villagran-Glover said. “It’s getting the students’ voices at the forefront. People in positions to make change are listening.”
Updated Oct. 31, 2018: This story was edited to clarify Goldrick-Rab’s position on free tuition and how her research has been implemented. The story incorrectly stated that the construction boom accounts for 11 percent of tuition increases.