Everyone is familiar with that stereotypical image of the ‘poor college student’; living off of pizza and ramen noodles, grabbing extra napkins and condiments from restaurants to use later, being afraid of checking your bank account balance. People have long made light of college students facing economic uncertainties. But many students are in quite grim situations.
“I think every student we see, everything comes down to money,” said Tracey Maxwell, the coordinator of Women’s Link at Lorain County Community College, “transport, legal issues, health, child care, car repair, rent.” The Women’s Link office offers both personal and academic resources to LCCC students.
But what does ‘living in poverty’ mean?
Currently, the United States national poverty line stands at $12,060 for a single person, or $24,600 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Health and Human Services Department’s 2017 Poverty guidelines. These guidelines help determine financial eligibility for specific federal programs, like parts of Medicaid, Children’s Health Insurance Plan (CHIP), and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
For Lorain County, about 42,269 people, or 14.4 percent, live below the poverty line, according to the Ohio Development Services Agency’s (DSA) Feb. 2017 report. This means that Lorain County is slightly lower than the statewide poverty level, which is 15.8 percent, or 1,775,836 people, according to the DSA report, which is based on data collected between 2011-2015.
The city of Elyria itself, however, fares worse than state and county averages, with poverty at about 22.2 percent, according to a Dec. 2016 survey conducted by the United States Census Bureau between 2011-2015. The poverty rate for children (17 and under) was even higher, at 36.5 percent.
Of course, all of these numbers show real consequences when it comes to education.
While the Women’s Link office at LCCC offers counseling, crisis intervention, and legal services, the most requested assistance among students is financially related, according to Women’s Link Information Support Specialist, Tamara Wright, who sees students on a one-on-one basis. Between July 1, 2015, and June 30, 2016, Women’s Link saw 1,245 students with financial needs and 826 students received an emergency loan, Wright said.
“That was our highest service request, by far,” Wright said. “It’s always like that anymore.”
Within that same time period, 144 students were seen requesting food assistance, which covers a broad array of needs.
“It could be that they need lunch for today – they don’t have any food with them and need something to eat right now,” Wright explained. “It could be a referral to food pantries or a food bank, or it could be information on how to apply for food stamps.”
Maxwell estimates that there are roughly 2,000-2,500 students who are seen each year at the Women’s Link office. This means that almost exactly 50 percent of the students that are seen each year are in search of financial relief.
Women’s Link does offer a few options to students who are caught in circumstances. The office has an emergency loan fund of $19,000, according to Maxwell. Students who are receiving financial aid can borrow up to $500 per semester. The loan is paid back through a student’s financial aid overage check with no interest or fees.
In Jan., their emergency loan fund ran out barely two weeks into the new semester, which is a pretty typically occurrence, according to Wright.
“Fall semesters and spring semesters, we do run out pretty quickly,” Wright explained. “We do have more money in our fund than we did in the past, but still, there’s just such a need.”
To address some of the issues facing students, at least twelve Ohio colleges have opened food pantries on campus, according to a new report from the Ohio Association of Community Action Agencies (ACAA), a group of affiliated organizations whose main goals are to eradicate poverty and help the poor become self-sufficient. LCCC is included in that number, with the Commodore Cupboard available to students who qualify.
For a family to be fully self-sufficient, without government or private assistance, their actual income would need to be about 46 percent higher than the federal poverty guidelines suggest, the ACAA found.
“I really think finances affect everything, in one way or another,” Wright said. “It affects where you live, how you live, what you eat, if you eat, if you can get to classes or not, if you can make it through the semester, if you can come back next semester. It affects mental health, physical health, children, families – and definitely their studies,” she said. “ If their electricity gets shut off, it’s really hard to study, use a computer.”
According to the DSA report, 49 of Ohio’s 88 counties had poverty rates below the national average of 15.8 percent, including Lorain County. 39 Ohio counties were above this average.
Education plays an important role in this. Of those who did not graduate from high school, 27.3 percent were poor, while 13.3 percent of those with a high school diploma were poor, according to the DSA report. Meanwhile,10.9 percent of adults with some college education or an associate’s degree, and 3.9 percent of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree were considered poor, the DSA found.
LCCC’s campus is relatively unique in that it has resources that are directed at poor students. Besides the emergency loan, Women’s Link also offers what is known as the DASH Emergency Grant.
“A DASH Grant is for an unexpected financial emergency that could prevent the student from being able to continue on with their classes,” Wright said. “That could be they need a car repair to get to school, or they have a medical concern or bill they need to pay, even if something unexpected happened with their finances if they can’t pay their rent or utilities. So it’s for, extreme, dire financial emergencies,” she explained.
Students can use a DASH Grant of up to $500, Wright said, adding that these checks are payable to third parties, so no check would go directly to the student.
“They have to bring in documentation. So, if they need a car repair,” Wright offered as an example, “they have to get an estimate and bring that in. If they’re approved for the funding, a check will go directly to the place they got the estimate from,” she said.