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Lack of Investment in Education Breeds Poverty Among Students

Homelessness, poverty and food insecurity are endemic at MATC

Professional success is the inevitable result of hard work and talent according to anyone who still believes in the American dream. However, regardless of one’s merit, the door to success is often closed to those who lack financial stability in the first place. Just a month ago, the Government Accountability Office released a scathing study about poverty among U.S. college students, finding that more than 7 million students are low income, and more than 1.1 million are homeless.

Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) illustrates how poverty breeds poverty. In 2017, 61% of program students at MATC received financial aid, and even more struggled to make ends meet but didn’t qualify for grants. To face the worrying issue of poverty among students, the faculty union Local 212/MATC Believe in Students FAST Fund was created by sociology professor Sara Goldrick-Rab. Today, it aims to provide funds to the “72% of MATC students [who] are low-income.”

The fact that MATC is a textbook case of poverty perpetuating itself is tragic in more ways than one: Nearly a third of the students are African American, and most come from low-income families, attracted by the promise of an inexpensive education leading to high-paying jobs. More than three-quarters of MATC students are pursuing degrees in business, healthcare, technology and applied sciences—fields that direly need more qualified workers, new blood and new perspectives.

Steep Costs Create Barriers to Entry

“People who are concerned about having a skilled labor force, about having an educated population, don’t realize we don’t have public policy that addresses the principal reason why students aren’t completing superior education. Because of the financial stresses they are under, students are forced to stop attending,” explains Mike Rosen, retired professor of economics at MATC and union leader; Rosen is now dedicated to the FAST Fund.

Tuition is often the main expense for students. In the Milwaukee area, yearly tuition is $30,000 per year on average for a full-time student. MATC advertises that its tuition is between $3,600 and $4,700 per year on average. However, prices can vary depending on a student’s situation, and students must also pay for books—“which are very expensive, routinely more than $1,000 per year for a student attending full time,” according to Rosen—as well as countless miscellaneous fees. In the end, according to MATC’s own cost calculator, the average in-state student pays roughly $10,000 per year to attend. Even with Pell Grants—the maximum amount of which is $6,095 this year—students cannot cover more than 60% of their tuition.

“Pell Grants were initially designed to cover the entire cost of attendance for a community college, but today, they cover barely more than half,” Rosen explains. “In the early 2000s, 30% of the funding for technical colleges came from the state, but by 2010, state aid had dropped to 10%. The state just stopped investing in tech colleges.”

Some initiatives exist to improve the situation, such as the Promise Program, which was launched in 2015. High school graduates who are eligible for federal financial aid may receive up to 75 credits worth of free tuition at MATC in order to avoid an outstanding debt. The program also exists for adults 24 and older who have never earned a degree and wish to reenter the education system. However, even with the Promise program, many students still need to work part-time. According to a 2015 Georgetown University study, low-income students who work while studying “are more likely to have lower persistence and completion rates than others.” After being at their job 35 hours a week—which nearly 50% of working undergraduate students do—who could blame them when they struggle to keep up with their degree-earning goals?

Students Rely on Generosity to Survive

Besides tuition, students need money for rent, food, insurance, bills, transportation and any kind of supplies and equipment required to complete classes. With the average MATC student being 30 years old, many students also have to juggle taking care of their kids alongside work and college obligations. Due to the distinct lack of sufficient state and federal support systems in place to ensure the survival of students, they must often rely on the generosity of groups like the FAST Fund.

“The first thing students need help with is shelter,” according to Rosen. “Last year, 45% of students the FAST Fund helped had housing issues—whether the students were actually homeless, were couch-surfing or had eviction notices. The second-biggest area was transportation to get to school, work or to pick up children. Then, it is important to help with energy bills, especially right now. And, just in the last week, we helped students who had no food.”

In its first year, MATC’s FAST Fund served 30 students; last year, it helped 104. This year, despite being in the first few weeks of the second semester, the fund has already helped more than 80 students. To raise money and support impoverished students, the FAST Fund is organizing a gala and silent auction on Friday, Feb. 15, at the Milwaukee Brewing Company. Items such as theater tickets, art from MATC students, a signed Green Bay Packers jersey, guest house vacations and gift certificates for local businesses will be auctioned off.

Despite those heart-warming community efforts and generosity, students should never have to rely on handouts to become educated. Hope now lies in the hands of the newly elected state legislature and governor. “I’m hopeful that Gov. Tony Evers will reverse this,” Rosen confides. “He’s a supporter of technical colleges, so I hope he will increase funding for both technical colleges and the state’s currently underfunded higher education grants.” As a former educator, Evers made public education his first priority as governor, explicitly promising he would “increase investments in our technical schools.”

For more information about the MATC FAST Fund and the fundraising gala, visit local212.org or call 414-467-8908.