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Financial struggles make navigating college tougher

OWENS COMMUNITY COLLEGE’S manager of career services and student activities, James Katzner (left), visits with student Kourtney Gonyer in his office. Katzner said he and his staff often hear from students that they are struggling financially. If needed, students are referred to local social service agencies. Owens is also creating a fund to help students in emergency situations. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

OWENS COMMUNITY COLLEGE’S manager of career services and student activities, James Katzner (left), visits with student Kourtney Gonyer in his office. Katzner said he and his staff often hear from students that they are struggling financially. If needed, students are referred to local social service agencies. Owens is also creating a fund to help students in emergency situations. (Photo by Randy Roberts)

By SARA ARTHURS
STAFF WRITER

Deadlines for papers and studying for tests aren’t the only challenges community college students face. Many struggle financially, too.

In December, the Wisconsin Hope Lab released a report, “Hungry to Learn: Addressing Food and Housing Insecurity Among Undergraduates,” focusing on research conducted at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Michigan.

The survey of more than 4,000 undergraduates at 10 community colleges across the nation found that half of all of the students were struggling with food and/or housing insecurity, and that 20 percent were hungry and 13 percent were homeless.

Owens Community College does not keep local statistics but it does know of students who are asking for help or saying that they are struggling.

Jamey Katzner, manager of career services and student activities at Owens’ Findlay campus, said staff in his department regularly hear from students who disclose that they are having financial problems.

Katzner said Owens will refer students to other local resources, such as where they can get food.

Depending on the situation, sometimes Katzner or another staff member will call a local agency to put a student in touch with somebody right away.

“Because we don’t want them to walk out of the office and feel intimidated reaching out on their own,” he said.

Katzner said students sometimes open up to him or student services staff about a need.

Other times, faculty members might be the ones to first learn of the need, and they will refer the student to Katzner.

And, in other cases, a student might mention that they are struggling with food or housing during a financial aid interview.

“Of course, we keep it confidential,” Katzner said.

He said asking for help can be hard for students.

The average age of an Owens student is around 27, Katzner said.

He said Owens has a lot of nontraditional students. Most are working either part-time or full-time.

More than half of Owens’ students are the first generation in their family to go to college, which Katzner said can indicate a difficult economic background.

Katzner said many people aren’t aware of the financial issues that may lurk beneath trying to get an education.

“Going to college is not always just a matter of going to college,” he said. “There is a lot more to it.”

In addition to food and housing, transportation can be an issue.

Katzner said these needs affect students’ education in many ways.

“It makes it much more challenging for them to actually come to class, which impacts their performance,” he said.

He said it’s also harder for students to be able to find the time and space to do their homework in a quiet atmosphere.

“And, of course, the emotional strain just takes its toll,” he said.

Owens soon plans to roll out a student emergency assistance fund for students.

Katzner said these types of funds are becoming more common at other schools, which are developing them to help students who may struggle if a car breaks down or they have had a fire.

Katzner said Owens is piloting this program on its Findlay campus and has been raising money through a 5-kilometer race over the last two years as well as donations.

Katzner said it’s important to create “an environment where there’s greater awareness all around” of the resources available. He said this is true not only for students but also faculty, as many Owens faculty are part-time and may have their own financial struggles.

“It is a big issue, and it makes education a challenge, both from the student perspective and from the employee perspective,” he said.

The “Hungry to Learn” researchers also noted that inability to eat balanced meals may affect students’ cognitive functioning.

Their data also found a strong relationship between food security and mental health problems, with 55 percent of survey respondents “indicating very low levels of food security” reporting symptoms of probable clinical depression, 52 percent severe levels of anxiety, 16 percent symptoms of a probable eating disorder and 20 percent serious thoughts of suicide in the past year.

This compared to one in five food-secure students who reported being depressed, 18 percent who indicated severe anxiety, 5 percent who indicated an eating disorder and 6 percent indicating suicidal ideation.

The researchers noted that advisers and administrators at schools are often aware that food and housing insecurity is affecting their students, but may face the challenge of figuring out what to do and being able to afford resources to take action.

The researchers also offered recommendations for changes to public policy, such as making it simpler for them to apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits and providing eligibility for the low-income housing tax credit for youth and veterans experiencing homelessness while they pursue an education.

Arthurs: 419-427-8494
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