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29 July 2019

When the Price of College Includes Hunger

By John J. “Ski” Sygielski, Ed.D., president of HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College

Published on July 28, 2019, in Lancaster Newspapers/LancasterOnline

It is an unfortunate truth that groceries are increasingly an obstacle to a college degree. This is a quiet reality at HACC, Central Pennsylvania’s Community College, which serves approximately 40,000 credit and workforce development students on five campuses in our 11-county footprint. At HACC’s Gettysburg Campus, for example, where 80% of students work at least one job, some students rely on free canned and packaged foods in boxes marked “HACC Cares.” Our Lancaster Campus is training staff on expanded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for students and outreach to the United Way’s 2-1-1 service, which received 12,000 calls for food assistance statewide last year. At our Lebanon Campus, 486 students have registered for the student food pantry since its inception one year ago.
These solutions are stopgaps, of course, for larger challenges: the rising cost of living, the failure of Pell Grants to match expenses and the vulnerability of low-income students, more of whom attend community colleges than four-year institutions. While tuition is paid at the beginning of the semester – and expenses like utilities, rent and transportation are non-negotiable – food falls to the bottom of the priority list. Students cut their spending in the only place they can find. 

According to recent research on food insecurity at 70 community colleges nationally, one out of three students is regularly hungry – what amounts to several million students a year. Largely, food-insecure students are among the most underprivileged groups in our society: immigrants, low-income people, displaced workers and, disproportionately, people of color. Such students take enormous risks to overcome barriers by enrolling in college to begin with. They are generally older – the average age of a community college student nationwide is 27 years old – and many have a limited frame of reference for navigating college since 36% come from homes where neither parent went to college. Add to that variables such as working while studying, commuting long distances and caring for family members, and their risks of non-completion multiply. These are the students who can least afford to leave college without a degree, certificate or diploma. Investing in career skills at a community college shouldn’t make these students even more vulnerable by adding food insecurity – but in many cases, it does.
That’s why HACC’s Lancaster Campus established The Hawk’s Nest, a food pantry for students and employees facing food insecurity. HACC’s Lebanon Campus now runs a giving pantry, which is stocked through donations from a local church. HACC’s York Campus is surveying students about their food needs, having already hosted several events that revealed an alarming extent of food insecurity. HACC’s Gettysburg Campus provides free canned and packaged foods in “HACC Cares” boxes for students. HACC’s Harrisburg Campus regularly refers students to the Central Pennsylvania Food Bank and helps them enroll in the SNAP, but is also considering a food voucher program.
As middle skills jobs have become even more difficult to access without postsecondary education, community colleges provide a pathway for many. At HACC, we believe that everyone should have a shot at what has become a vital part of the education pipeline – the opportunity to invest in career skills. To make that a reality, HACC will continue to build safety nets that support food-insecure students. Because going hungry shouldn’t be the price of education and training for a skilled job.

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