Taking a community approach to campus hunger and homelessness
By the Colorado Department of Higher Education
With higher education, cost and access are inextricably tied. About a decade ago, Colorado fronted two-thirds of a student’s tuition and fees, and their family chipped in the remaining third. Today, that ratio has completely flipped. Without containing these rising costs, we risk pricing out too many hardworking students from a world-class education.
To help more Coloradans earn a degree or certificate, we need to make college and technical school more affordable — a key strategy outlined in our statewide plan for higher education, Colorado Rises. This past legislative session, we took a big step forward when Governor Jared Polis approved a $131 million funding increase designed to keep tuition flat over the next academic year.
Stabilizing tuition is just one piece of the puzzle, however. As the cost of college has risen, so have necessities for living and learning. On top of paying for cell phone bills and textbook costs, many students struggle to afford housing and groceries — and often with dire consequences. A recent report from the Urban Institute found that 11 percent of four-year students and 13.5 percent of two-year students experience food insecurity, and another survey from The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice found even higher rates of homelessness: 14 percent and 18 percent among students at community colleges and universities respectively.
Responding to this crisis, nearly all Colorado institutions have opened food pantries on campus. The one at Community College of Denver, which we visited this spring, serves about 300 students per semester. For access, students need just their identification card, their current schedule and their recent billing statement. CCD staff members also connect qualifying students to federal social services programs that can ease the burden, including SNAP, which supplements food budgets, and TANF, which provides support for families with children.
Many metro-area nonprofits have stepped up to support students, too. This Pride Month (June) we visited Urban Peak, a Denver-based community organization that serves homeless youth. Many clients identify on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum, so Urban Peak facilities offer a safe space that affirms their unique personhood and provides resources free from stigma. Located in downtown Denver, the outreach and drop-in center offers breakfast, lockers, laundry facilities, showers and supplies for youth. The shelter, just few miles away, houses up to 40 youth per night.
In addition to dorms, the shelter is home to a medical clinic staffed by two volunteer doctors and a psychiatrist. To add to this service, a recently awarded federal grant will allow Urban Peak to hire on-site social workers and counselors. And thanks to a partnership with Red Rocks Community College, Urban Peak also features a classroom where students can prepare for the GED test, file their Free Application for Federal Student Aid, work on college application and apply for jobs. For many marginalized youth, it’s this kind of holistic care that puts higher education in reach.
Solving hunger and homelessness is no easy task, but we owe it to our students to provide them with the best learning experience possible. It’s hard to solve calculus problems or write essays when you’re wondering where you’ll find your next meal or where you’ll sleep that night. By convening the right partners — our institutions, community organizations and business — we can ensure more Coloradans meet their basic needs and concentrate on what matters most: living out their potential.