Universities are trying to alleviate the problems of student and staff inflation

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Kayla Williams, a sophomore at Sam Houston State University, chose to pay her tuition on grocery shopping last year. The cost of both went up, but as a self-supporting student in college, staying in school seemed more important. She rushed to work as many hours as possible as an information desk assistant at the campus student center, but it wasn’t enough to meet all of her needs.

“Either I pay the tuition fees…or I save money to buy something to eat,” she said. “It got so bad – that I would go days without eating.”

Williams later discovered the food pantry on campus, where she now works. Sam Houston State University and other universities around the country are working to prop themselves up to support many students like Williams who are burdened financially by rampant inflation — the highest rate of inflation in 40 years, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics — and rising costs of food and other daily necessities. .

As many colleges and universities take action to tighten their belts and raise tuition fees as their institutional expenses rise, some are also trying to ease the financial hardships of students, faculty, and staff.

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Kathleen Gilbert, a food pantry manager at Sam Houston, said demand has already skyrocketed. Usually about 25 to 50 students visit the store regularly during the summer semester. But at least 100 students have come to eat so far, and recently community members are coming too. In July alone, 51 members of the surrounding community ordered boxes of prepackaged groceries, a service the store began offering during the pandemic.

At the same time, the store, operating on donations, had less money, and the cost of some foods that Gilbert wanted to buy for students increased. For example, it is now difficult to continue offering meat and gluten-free options, products that can be pricey even in normal times.

“We are really trying our best to provide fresh produce, milk, eggs, bread and dairy products,” she said. And with this price increase, this affects us. While I would usually be able to buy 100 loaves of bread, I really do have to budget and say, “Okay, now I can only get 60 loaves.”

However, it is promoting the store more on social media and trying to prepare for a “worst-case scenario,” which could mean feeding up to 500 students on a tight budget next fall. She’s also busy trying to solicit donations and build new community partnerships to find new ways to get food. For example, it works with a local community garden to offer its surplus produce to students.

Sam Houston State also plans to introduce a new mobile storage truck to deliver food directly to student residences. The idea for the truck was born after a major ice storm hit Texas last winter, forcing students and community members to travel to the warehouse in inclement weather. Gilbert also hopes the truck will reach more students at this time of greatest need. She noted that student housing furthest from the university campus is about two miles away.

“Today especially with inflation, every gallon of gas counts,” she said.

Campus leaders at Southwest Tennessee Community College are also trying to lower gas costs for students, faculty, and staff. The college offers all classes and services remotely on Fridays, May 27 through August 12, so students and staff can save on commuting costs at least one day a week.

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

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

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

The remote days also lowered college costs.

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

The college has suffered significant losses in tuition revenue over the past two years due in part to the pandemic. Major said he estimates enrollment will drop by about 40 percent from fall 2019 to fall 2022. Southwest Tennessee is not raising tuition next fall after the Tennessee Board of Regents decided to reject it, but some vacant positions will not be filled to reduce expenses.

Liz Rothenberg, managing director of EAB, an education consultancy, said campuses struggle with regular costs “just like normal families.”

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

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

“I mean, it affected everything on our campus,” he said.

However, campus leaders decided to offer $250 stipends to all faculty and staff in July to help them with their expenses. Stiell said the money is intended to “make life easier” and boost morale for faculty and staff, which he believes, in turn, could improve students’ experience on campus this fall.

“As a way to motivate our faculty and staff, and let them know that we understand, care and appreciate them, we tried to do everything we could do at the time to help them get gas prices and everything,” he said. . “Because at the time, they were at an all-time high.”

Britney Gatson, a data processor for the college’s Enrollment Department, said the money helped cover back-to-school shopping costs for her two children.

Of the salary, she said, “I was motivated and emotional…because I needed it.” She was grappling with “whether I’d be able to get my kids school stuff or put gasoline in the car.” The salary meant she could do both. “It was really a blessing,” she added.

Dominic Baker, associate professor of education policy at Southern Methodist University, emphasized that colleges and universities need to focus on compensating staff appropriately amid rising inflation. She noted that many college employees have already quit or retired in response to the turmoil and fatigue of the pandemic. Others are leaving campus jobs for better wages in other sectors, exacerbating staff shortage problems and hurting students.

The people who leave “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 distributed correctly, the people who really think carefully and critically about how to create affiliation within the institution, the people who By examining them to ensure that students who are struggling financially can get additional support.” “If we don’t have enough compensation staff, we won’t have enough capacity with these staff, and that means warning signs can be missed when students are struggling.”

She also believes that federal and state lawmakers should increase funding for 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 Vinetti, who advises students on their finances as director of student advocacy at ScholarshipOwl, a scholarship platform, said students’ families are also struggling, which could mean less financial support for their enrolled children.

“Even families who budgeted and planned for college now have less money than they did three months ago,” she said.

Some campus leaders and staff say they are happy to provide the help they can provide, but that appears to be limited.

Williams, a sophomore at Sam Houston State, said colleges and universities should invest in building and expanding food pantries like hers and making sure students know they exist.

Kennedy McFarren, a Sam Houston State senior who also works in the campus food pantry, said she sympathizes with the students and community members who flock there to get food. She would occasionally stay with a friend who lived on campus this summer to save money on gas instead of commuting for more than an hour.

She said she was glad the pantry could help her and her co-workers with food. But “it hurts a little bit, because there’s no more we can do.”

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