There’s a growing harsh truth to the tale of the “starving college student,” and Rogue Community College (RCC) students are no exception. Nearly three-quarters of RCC students who responded to a 2019 survey indicated they had experienced food or housing insecurity within the previous year. Regional wildfires, coupled with COVID-19 impacts, have increased the crisis dramatically even as RCC continues to respond with innovative programs to help.
In addition to the existing scholarships, emergency funds, food pantry and programs for low-income students, RCC recently added a new staff position dedicated to helping students connect with basic resources such as food, housing, transportation and childcare. Resource Coordinator Susan Bame was hired Dec. 1 with funds approved by the Oregon Legislature via House Bill 2835.
This statewide funding directed nearly $5 million to Oregon’s seven public universities and 17 community colleges to hire benefits navigators for students-in-need. These navigators help promote future educational and career success of homeless and very low-income students by addressing basic needs. RCC has been aware of and responding to the growing numbers of students facing housing and food insecurity for many years. This new funding will significantly augment RCC’s ability to offer additional aid.
“Our students facing basic needs insecurity are less likely to complete their education and gain economic mobility through gainful employment,” said Dr. Cathy Kemper-Pelle, RCC President. “We understand that providing these services is critical to student success.”
While many assume students are able to rely on family resources, RCC’s 2019 #RealCollege Survey found that 57% of RCC students experienced low or very low levels of food security in the past 30 days and 62% experienced housing insecurity during the previous year. Eight percent of RCC respondents self-identified as homeless, while 17% indicated they had “couch surfed” or stayed with a relative or friend during the previous year.
“When our student’s focus is on getting enough food to be able to think or having a warm and safe place to stay for the night, they’re not able to focus on studying,” Bame said. “We help students look for housing resources, childcare, wireless hotspots and computers to take remote classes, even affordable eyeglasses. Anything can become a barrier to learning, and with the current economy and health crisis the most unexpected thing can halt a good student’s progress.”
Bame’s role is to connect students with community resources as well as on-campus resources they may not know about such as the free food pantry, free counseling services, emergency funds for food or gas, and special training programs for students on state food assistance.
“As Resource Coordinator, I field emails and phone calls for help from staff and students alike. I meet students, staff and professors in person and update the community on the latest news in campus and community resources,” Bame said. “Usually we can find a needed resource, if there is one, and get back to the student within an hour to a day.”
More than half of RCC students participating in the #RealCollege Survey said they couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals (56%) and/or worried their food would run out before they had money to buy more (55%). Ten percent of respondents said they went without food a whole day because there was not enough money, and six percent said they’d gone a day without food at least three times during the previous month.
The nationwide #RealCollege Survey was conducted by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice; 171 RCC students participated. RCC students reported experiencing higher rates of food insecurity (57% locally, 42% nationally), housing insecurity (62% locally, 50% nationally) and homelessness (21% locally, 17% nationally) than all other two-year institution respondents nationwide. In total, 72% of RCC students experienced at least one of these forms of basic needs insecurity in the past year.
“Statewide community college participation in this survey gave us valuable information to share with our legislators,” said Kemper-Pelle, “and the passage of HB 2835, to provide benefits navigators, puts Oregon at the forefront of U.S. community college efforts to address students’ basic needs insecurity.”
A new Advocacy and Resource Center (ARC) program is also in development to serve RCC students at all campuses. Both Redwood and Table Rock campuses will host dedicated locations, creating “one-stop-shops” for students needing information and referrals for basic needs assistance. Riverside students will be served through individual appointments. Bame, along with April Hamlin, Director of Advising, and other key college staff will coordinate comprehensive efforts to meet students’ needs in a welcoming environment.
Highlights of campus resources available to RCC students:
Ossie’s Cupboard, a student-run food pantry, is available to all RCC students and employees. Cupboards are located at the Redwood and Table Rock campuses, and orders may be placed online for pickup.
The SNAP Training and Employment Program, known as STEP, is a statewide initiative that aims to close opportunity gaps for low-income students by providing supports and coaching to individuals receiving state food assistance benefits.
Since June 2020, RCC has disbursed $6.46 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds directly to students. Current winter term students who have been adversely affected by the pandemic can apply for an $800 grant.
In addition to federal financial aid, RCC students receive a total of about $500,000 in scholarships each year through the RCC Foundation. The college offers on-campus work opportunities with hours that flex around student class schedules. Students in need may request emergency assistance through the Counseling department; funding is provided by the RCC Foundation.
Funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education, the TRIO Educational Opportunity Center (EOC) provides advising for college admissions and financial aid to help adult participants enroll in postsecondary education institutions. EOC advisors at RCC’s Redwood and Table Rock campuses provide services to students enrolling at RCC as well as other colleges and universities.
For more information on programs for students-in-need, contact Susan Bame, Resource Coordinator at 541-956-7369 or [email protected].