Within the past year, the costs of groceries, housing, utilities, and gas have increased, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Just between June 2021 to June 2022, the Consumer Price Index (CPI) for all urban consumers increased 9.1%, which is the highest 12-month increase since 1981. And colleges are trying to combat that — either by increasing access to their food pantries, giving students funds for transportation, or helping students get other basic needs.
Last month, NASFAA asked its members how much their institution increased the non-tuition/fees components of the cost of attendance (COA) for 2022-23 due to the rising inflation rate. To calculate this, members used the CPI for the 12-month period prior to the month that their institution created their COA.
Of the 113 respondents, 31% said their institution increased non-tuition/fees COA components at or above the inflation rate. Additionally, 30.1% of respondents said their institutions increased non-tuition/fees COA components, but by less than the inflation rate.
And 23.9% of respondents said their institutions did not increase non-tuition/fees COA components, but considered inflation-related professional judgment adjustments upon request from a student or parent. Just 15% of respondents said their institution did not increase non-tuition/fees COA components and did not consider inflation-related professional judgment adjustments.
Eddy Conroy, senior advisor of the Education Policy Program at New America, said he hasn’t seen inflation strongly impact higher education yet, but noted that there could be more changes over the next couple of years since budget cycles for institutions are often multi-year. Right now, Conroy said he’s seen a lot of pressure for institutions to raise employee salaries, since many workers in higher education have below-market pay for their level of skill.
“You sort of got this combination effect of the Great Resignation going on with people seeking more flexible work and better salaries, and then that leads to an additional driver of increasing costs, which is pushing staff and faculty to want higher wages, which is entirely reasonable,” Conroy said. “But the long-term effects are potentially that that leads to increased tuition if there's not additional government support to help with those changes.”
Conroy noted that for many low-income students, inflation has exacerbated the need for campus food pantries and other resources since many students don’t have the extra funds to afford rising gas, food, and housing costs.
“If you were already food insecure, and the price of a grocery shop has now gone from — and I'm just using example numbers — $70 to buy what used to be $50 of groceries, that's a huge problem when you are already struggling to buy the bare minimum that you need,” Conroy said.
Expanding Services, New Initiatives
And some institutions are aware of how the rising costs are impacting students and employees, Conroy said, as several institutions in the last few months announced initiatives geared toward easing the financial burden.
Other institutions are expandings their food pantries, such as Metropolitan State University (MSU) of Denver. This year, the campus food pantry, named the Roadrunner Food Pantry, is getting a bigger location and a total makeover, said Miguel Huerta, assistant director of community engagement and programs with the Student Care Center.
Working to overcome the stigma of food pantries for students, the new campus pantry will have kitchen space for students to use and to get food, along with seating to give a “cafe vibe,” Huerta said. Additionally, last semester the university hosted five satellite food pantries on campus that serve specific student populations, including a satellite pantry at the veteran and military center and another for the campus’ honors house.
Huerta said last academic year MSU Denver’s food pantries served over 1,300 students in the fall and spring semesters combined, with the number of students doubling in the spring 2022 semester. Additionally, Huerta noted that the #RealCollege Survey Report, published in March 2021 by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, found about 35% of MSU Denver’s 16,000 students experienced food insecurity.
“The pantry is housed out of the Student Care Center, which provides holistic case management support for students,” Huerta said. “And so the key part is making sure that students are able to seamlessly connect with a case manager in the care center to apply for SNAP, for example, or to realize that we have an emergency fund that they can tap into if there’s been a lapse in work, and they are about to be evicted from their apartment.”
However, Huerta added that MSU Denver is doing what they can with what they have and recognizes that some students may need more support.
“I think as long as we can get students connected to as many resources and support as possible … that's all going to hopefully give them a little bit more breathing room, but we definitely acknowledge that we don't have a fix for everything unfortunately,” Huerta said.
Meanwhile, Compton College in California is currently piloting its guaranteed income program, where eligible student parents can receive $500 each month for three months in the spring and fall semester in order to cover basic needs, said Libbyer Martinez, Extended Opportunity Programs and Services (EOPS) and Cooperative Agencies Resources for Education (CARE) coordinator.
“What we know from guaranteed income programs is that they are helpful,” Martinez said. “They're essentially anti-poverty programs that are meant to enhance the lives of individuals who need additional support. When we look at our parents in the population, in general in the state of California, we know that 1 in 5 of our students that are in the California Community College system are parents. And they also experienced high rates of food insecurity, housing insecurity, and homelessness.”
Martinez said when the pilot was announced, her office received a very high number of emails and calls from current and prospective students. She said it’s been a good opportunity to speak with prospective students who need support but haven’t enrolled in college yet.
Compton College is also offering money for student workers to pay for gas when they travel to campus to work. And through June 2023, students can get a “GoPass” with unlimited free rides on the local Metro bus and rail. Additionally, the campus offers a mobile food pantry at least once a month for students to access.
And to combat rising gas prices, Southwest Tennessee Community College during the summer moved its classes and operations virtually on Fridays to help ease the burden on students and employees by eliminating their commute for one day. The college announced last month it’s expanding the virtual Fridays until August 2023.
Cory Major, vice president of student affairs, said the initial decision was in response to record high gas prices, but toward the end of the summer he said the institution saw it as an opportunity to provide relief for the campus community.
“We have had both students and employees share that the virtual Fridays have helped them save both time and money,” Major said. “For some, not having to put gas in the fuel tank has eliminated the need to decide between buying food and filling up. For others, the convenience of just logging in from home has given them time and space to catch up on their work and to focus on preparing for the upcoming week.”
Sherita Robertson, director of financial aid, said virtual Fridays provide relief for employees and students because some have to travel between the multiple campuses around the Memphis area, which doesn’t offer much public transportation. Robertson noted that a survey conducted over the summer found 67% of the students wanted virtual Fridays to continue.
“So this actually helps employees who could save a little bit on gas, because inflation just took quite a bit out of their monthly earnings,” Robertson said. “So it was a decision really to assist the students and to assist employees that have to travel to outlying campuses to work.”
Publication Date: 9/20/2022