Within the last five years, food insecurity has come to the forefront as a retention issue for community college students in the United States. Research has shown over 50% of community college students reporting marginal, high, or very high levels of food insecurity, therefore, many community college students are hungry. Rates of food insecurity are highest among those community college students receiving a Pell grant (federal financial aid) and students with children, with 63% of parenting students reporting low levels of food security (Goldrick-Rab, S., Richard, J., & Hernandez. A., 2017, March). The majority of parenting students (71%) in the United States are women (Eckerson, et al., 2016).
Community Colleges in the United States
As one of the major components for the U. S. economic development engine, community colleges provide workforce training and offer a competitive edge for many states trying to entice business and industry to locate in their regions. Community colleges, as open access institutions, attract traditional aged and adult learners who often use the community college as a gateway to establishing or maintaining a middle class status. Juszkiewicz's (2016) research shows that of the community college students who started in Fall 2009, 38.2% completed a program of study within six years. Moreover, only 29% of community college students obtain an associate degree in three years.
Completion rates and income have a strong relationship with one estimate showing that students with family incomes in the top income quartile, graduate at a rate six times those in the lowest quartile. Many students who drop out of college indicate that they are doing so for financial reasons. Financial aid is not keeping pace with the rising costs of tuition and books. Based on income levels, students in the U. S. are eligible for financial aid to assist them in paying for college through a federal grant, the Pell Grant, which at one time covered most of their tuition. Today, the Pell Grant is covering approximately 60% of tuition. Women, students of color, and students between the ages of 25 and 39 are most likely to receive a Pell Grant. In addition, the majority of Pell Grant recipients (61%) at community colleges are living below the poverty threshold--$21,756 for a family of four (Center for Community College Student Engagement, 2017).
For many years, community college stakeholders have bemoaned low retention, completion, and graduation rates. Community colleges in the U. S. serve traditional 18-19 years old. In addition, they serve non-traditional students--single parents and adults returning to school to learn new skills. However, 56% of community college students are women (American Association of Community Colleges, 2018). Students of color are most likely to begin their college careers at community colleges. At four-year institutions, 25% of the female students are Latina or African American, however, at community colleges they comprise 33% of the female population. For many years, females have been the majority of 2-year and 4-year college students. The National Student Clearinghouse Media Center (2017) reported the largest gap ever between genders with females being 57.3% of the Fall 2017 college enrollees. The gap between female and male students is largest for African American community college students, with 63% being female (St. Rose & Hill, 2013).
Like many women in the United State, these women who are enrolled in college are also breadwinners, and heads of household, and earn 74 cents for every dollar a man makes. Making ends meet can be difficult for women. One out of eight women (16.3 million) in the U.S. lived in poverty in 2016, and minority women were twice as likely to be poor. Single parent families, headed by females, were 5.4 times more likely to live in poverty than married-couple families. Sixty percent of poor children resided within a female-headed household. Native women and Black women were the poorest in the country, with 23% and 21%, respectively living below the poverty line (National Women's Law Center, 2017).
Women in Community Colleges and Poverty
For many women attempting to raise themselves and their children out of poverty, higher education may be the answer. Throughout the nation, community colleges open their doors to all who will come, yet many poor students begin and cannot complete a program or graduate with a degree due to lack of comprehensive resources to support the whole student. The data tell the story, and yet from most of the research on student financial health or financial stability, we conclude that students are the problem when it seems obvious that the problem lies with a lack of funds on the part of our poorest students.
Women in particular are victims of our misinterpretation of data on financial instability for community college students. One often overlooked factor in need of investigation for female community college students is the impact of food insecurity, defined as an inadequate level of nutritional and safe food or the inability to obtain foods in a socially acceptable manner. In 2016, households with children headed by a single woman (31.6%) had the highest rate of food insecurity in the U. S. (Coleman-Jensen, Rabbitt, Gregory, & Singh, 2017). Estimates of food insecurity in the U. S. indicate that those with children under the 18 and without a spouse are more likely to be food insecure than the majority of Americans.
Food Insecurity and Community College Women