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Kennedy McFerren and Kayla Williams, student workers at the campus food pantry at Sam Houston State University, hope they can help classmates that are feeling the effects of inflation.

Angi Sosa

Kayla Williams, a sophomore at Sam Houston State University, chose paying her tuition over buying groceries last year. The cost of both had gone up, but as a student supporting herself through college, staying enrolled seemed more important. She scrambled to work as many hours as possible as an information desk assistant for the campus student center, but it wasn’t enough to meet all her needs.

“It’s either I pay my tuition … or I save the money to buy me something to eat,” she said. “It got bad—to the point where I would just go days without eating.”

Williams later discovered the campus food pantry, where she now works. Sam Houston State and other campuses across the country are steeling themselves to support many more students like Williams who are financially burdened by rampant inflation—the highest inflation rate in 40 years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics—and the rising costs of food and other day-to-day essentials.

As many colleges and universities take belt-tightening measures and raise tuition as their own institutional expenses rise, some are also trying to ease the financial struggles of students, faculty and staff members.

Kathleen Gilbert, director of the food pantry at Sam Houston State, said demand has already skyrocketed. About 25 to 50 students typically visit the pantry on a regular basis during the summer term. But at least 100 students have come for food so far, and lately community members are coming in, too. In July alone, 51 members of the surrounding community requested prepackaged grocery boxes, a service the pantry started offering during the pandemic.

At the same time, the pantry, which runs on donations, has had less money coming in, and the cost of some of the foods Gilbert wants to buy for students have increased. For example, it’s now harder to continue offering meat and gluten-free options, products that can be pricey even in ordinary times.

“We really try to do our best to really provide fresh produce, milk, eggs, bread, dairy,” she said. “And with that increase in price, that’s affecting us. Whereas I would typically be able to buy 100 loaves of bread, I’m really having to budget and say, ‘OK, well, now I can only get 60.’”

Nonetheless, she’s promoting the pantry more on social media and trying to prepare for the “worst-case scenario,” which could mean feeding up to 500 students on a limited budget this coming fall. She’s also busy trying to solicit donations and build new community partnerships to find new ways to get food. For example, she’s working with a local community garden to offer their excess produce to students.

Sam Houston State also plans to introduce a new mobile pantry van to deliver food directly to students’ dorms. The idea for the van was born after a major ice storm hit Texas last winter, forcing students and community members to travel to the pantry in inclement weather. Gilbert also hopes the van will reach more students in this time of heightened need. She noted that the student housing facility farthest from campus is about two miles away.

“Especially today with inflation, every gallon of gas counts,” she said.

Campus leaders at Southwest Tennessee Community College are also trying to cut gas costs for students and faculty and staff members. The college is offering all classes and services remotely on Fridays, from May 27 through Aug. 12, so students and employees can save on commuting costs at least one day per week.

Cory Major, vice president of student affairs at Southwest Tennessee, said it was critical to address rising expenses on a campus where almost half of the student body is eligible for the Pell Grant, federal financial aid for low-income students. The state has Tennessee Promise, tuition-free scholarship program for community college students, and a similar program focused on adult learners called Tennessee Reconnect, but he still finds students hampered by daily living expenses that keep going up.

The hope was to “help them at the gas pump,” Major said. “And that would help them with other expenses as well, because at that same time, rent was increasing, food prices were increasing.”

He added that campus leaders are considering extending “virtual Fridays” into the fall term after “incredibly, overwhelmingly positive” feedback from students and employees. The college surveyed 463 students, faculty and staff members about the remote days, and while some students had critiques—for example, some wanted the library on campus to remain open—most were in favor of virtual Fridays continuing.

The remote days also cut costs for the college.

“We do reduce our energy costs with virtual Fridays because we’re not keeping every building, every space, every facility air-conditioned at the same rate,” Major said.

The college experienced major losses in tuition revenue during the last two years due in part to the pandemic. He estimates enrollment will have dropped about 30 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2022, Major said. (Note: This sentence was revised to change the percentage of the enrollment decline at Southwest Tennessee Community College. An official at the college originally said it was 40 percent.) Southwest Tennessee isn’t raising tuition this coming fall after the Tennessee Board of Regents decided against it, but some vacant positions will not be filled to reduce expenses. 

Liz Rothenberg, managing director of EAB, an education consulting firm, said campuses are struggling with ordinary costs “just like regular households.”

“Utility and food costs for institutions are increasing well above inflation, sometimes 10-15% the last year,” she said in an email. “These are not insignificant parts of university budgets. Institutions should first and foremost make students, faculty, and staff aware of existing institutional resources to support basic needs: campus food pantries, emergency grants, connections to local community organizations, transportation benefits.”

George Stiell, senior vice president for business, finance and strategic retention at Wiley College, a private historically Black institution in Texas, said rising gas prices have increased all kinds of expenses at his institution, from spending on campus police patrols to mowing the campus lawns.

“I mean, it’s impacted everything on our campus,” he said.

Nonetheless, campus leaders decided to offer all faculty and staff members $250 stipends in July to help them with their expenses. Stiell said the money is intended to “make lives easier” and boost faculty and staff morale, which he believes can in turn improve the student experience on campus this fall.

“As a way to incentivize our faculty and staff, letting them know that we understand and we care and appreciate them, we tried to do as much as we could do at the time to help them out with gas prices and everything,” he said. “Because at that point in time, they were at an all-time high.”

Brittny Gatson, an enrollment management data processor at the college, said the money helped cover back-to-school shopping costs for her two children.

“I was excited and emotional … because I needed that,” she said of the stipend. She had been wrestling with “whether I’m going to be able to get my children school stuff or put gas in the car.” The stipend meant she could afford to do both. “It was truly a blessing,” she added.

Dominique Baker, assistant professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University, emphasized that colleges and universities need to focus on adequately compensating staff members amid high inflation. She noted that many college employees have already quit or retired in response to upheaval and burnout from the pandemic. Others are leaving campus jobs for better wages in other sectors, which further exacerbates understaffing problems and harms students.

The people leaving “are a lot of the people that students interact with on a daily basis: the people who help make sure that financial aid is done correctly and disbursed correctly, the people who think really carefully and critically about how belongingness is created within the institution, the people who check to make sure students who are struggling financially can get extra support,” she said. “If we don’t have adequately compensated staff, we won’t have adequate capacity with that staff, and that means that the warning signs could be missed when students are struggling.”

She also believes federal and state lawmakers should increase funding to public colleges and universities.

“States and the federal government have to decide what their priorities are around higher education, especially public higher education, and what it means to adequately fund them,” Baker said.

Jennifer Finetti, who advises students on their finances as director of student advocacy at ScholarshipOwl, a college scholarship platform, said students’ families are also struggling, which may mean less financial support for their enrolled children.

“Even families who budgeted and planned for college, now the money they have is worth less than it was even three months ago,” she said.

Some campus leaders and employees say they’re glad to offer what help they can, but it feels limited.

Williams, the Sam Houston State sophomore, said colleges and universities should invest in building and expanding food pantries like at her university and make sure students know they exist.

Kennedy McFerren, a senior at Sam Houston State who also works at the campus food pantry, said she empathizes with the students and community members flocking there for food. She sometimes stayed with a friend who lives on campus this summer to save money on gas rather than make the more than hour-long commute.

She’s glad the pantry can help her and her classmates with food, she said. But “it hurts a little bit, because there’s not more we can do.”

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