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Priced out: Low-income students struggle to meet costs, participate in college community

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Alison Montenegro (left) and Shane Linden, both sophomores at UW-Madison, take inventory for the Open Seat Food Pantry at UW-Madison.

When Keena Atkinson talks about college, she invokes an ancient allegory about prisoners in a cave who mistake the shadows they see for reality. Simply put, she didn’t know what she didn’t know.

“This journey has been so much about learning what I didn’t know about,” Atkinson, 28, said before graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in December. “Things that didn’t seem accessible to me, those doors became unlocked as I went through school. I think they weren’t necessarily locked to begin with, but they were locked in my mind.”

A once homeless single mother, Atkinson learned about more than just the academic content of her studies, beginning with the Odyssey Project, a UW-Madison humanities program for economically disadvantaged adults, and continuing at Madison Area Technical College and UW-Madison, where she earned a degree in psychology. She also learned a lot about what is required of students like her who, rather than being able to rely on parents for assistance, have children relying on them.

Demographers forecast that more college students in the future will be low-income adults returning to school. And President Barack Obama is pushing to make college more affordable with a package of proposals that includes providing two free years of college to all high school graduates, expanding the low-income Pell grant program for older students like Atkinson, and giving bonuses to colleges that enroll and graduate significant numbers of low-income students.

Meanwhile, student activists pushed for more affordable college on campuses across the country during the Million Student March in November. Other students are advocating for assistance beyond traditional financial aid to help manage school costs and demands, participate in extracurricular activities and complete their degrees.

What does life look like for low-income UW-Madison students struggling to afford college and what programs are available to help them succeed?

Brooke Evans is a formerly homeless UW-Madison student who works through the Wisconsin HOPE Lab with campus administrators on ideas to assist students who need help with basic needs and incidental expenses.

“I am waiting for the day when UW releases a public statement saying ‘It has come to our attention that we have students who struggle with these issues and we’re working with them on ways to help,’” Evans said.

UW-Madison spokeswoman Meredith McGlone said the university does quite a bit to help financially struggling students.

“Over the past several years, we’ve expanded need-based aid and Chancellor (Rebecca) Blank has made it a priority to further increase it,” she said. “Student support is a key element of UW-Madison's ongoing comprehensive fund raising campaign.”

Mishaps can snowball into homelessness

The number of obstacles for low-income students can be pretty overwhelming, said Emily Auerbach, a UW-Madison professor in the Division of Continuing Studies and founding director of the Odyssey Project. The free program, now in its 13th year, offers low-income adults an introduction to the humanities that for some is a catalyst to attend college. Many attend Madison Area Technical College and some go on to UW-Madison.

Auerbach said she has heard low-income students who are the first to attend college in their families describe the experience as entering another world.

“One of them said that college was like a game of chess where no one had told him the rules,” she said. “I had a student who broke his glasses. He was trying to read Socrates’ dialogues and he was holding it up to his face.”

The main funding line for the program, about $100,000 annually through the university, is designated for tuition and textbooks.

“I can buy him 20 more textbooks he can’t read, but I can’t fix his glasses,” Auerbach said.

She said she raises some $50,000 privately each year to spend on emergency expenses for Odyssey program students and alumni.

Even with assistance like the federal Pell grant, which can be used for living expenses as well as tuition and books, low-income students at MATC and UW-Madison face many incidental costs with the potential to derail their efforts to get a certificate or diploma, she said.

Besides housing and food, there are car repairs, laptops, printer cartridges and software, Auerbach said. A graphic design student needed help covering a $300 set of acrylic paints, nursing students have to buy uniforms and social work students must pay licensing fees before they can work. An immigrant student had to pay a $680 citizenship application fee to Homeland Security so she could become eligible for federal financial aid, she said.

“These are things students from privileged families don’t give a thought to, because they’ve got a cushion and a network of family members who are helping them,” Auerbach said.

But for low-income students, small mishaps can snowball into homelessness. The Odyssey program put one family up in a hotel for a week after their power was cut off for nonpayment. The program hired another student for five hours a week after she lost her job and, with it, eligibility for food stamps.

Expanding a worldview

Acollege degree seemed unlikely for Atkinson after she became a mother in high school. She starting working at a bank her senior year at La Follette High School and ended up bypassing a scholarship to MATC. She worked her way up to higher paying jobs until an employer relocated out of town in 2009.

Atkinson lost her apartment and was homeless for a time, spending a week in her car with her 5-year-old son before sleeping in a friend’s store for a while. It was he who suggested that Atkinson apply for the Odyssey Project.

“I wanted to change my life and my son’s life and not be in circumstances we were in,” Atkinson recalled.

Keena Atkinson

Keena Atkinson

Once she was studying again with support from the Odyssey Project, Atkinson said, she was hooked.

“It unlocked a lot for me as far as believing in myself,” she said. “When you have somebody who sees something in you and encourages you, you go for your dreams.”

Atkinson went to cosmetology school after completing the Odyssey Project so she could get a job with flexible hours when she started her college classes.

At MATC, she flew through remedial courses and earned an associate’s degree while making enough doing hair to pay for a one-bedroom apartment to live in with her son, aided by food stamps and health insurance through the state.

Atkinson transferred to UW-Madison in 2013. She had scholarships and a Pell grant, but still turned to the Odyssey Project to cover the cost of books, paper and printer cartridges. She found a scholarship to pay for a printer and internet service, she said.

Things got more complicated when her second son was born in 2014, even with the assistance of financial aid for child care through UW-Madison’s Office of Child Care and Family Resources.

“Doing homework was almost impossible,” Atkinson said. She needed two hours without distractions a couple of times a week in the evening to concentrate on coursework. “That was the hardest part and I felt like I didn’t have any support.”

Atkinson ended up joining the YMCA, where a $33 monthly membership fee got her two hours of child care daily. Her experience gave her the idea for a “study hall” program she’d like to develop, offering a space with wi-fi and printers for adult students while their children participate in activities in the same building.

During her final semester this fall, Atkinson worked for class credit with a UW-Madison program that studies how prejudice and stereotypes work in society.

“I felt like I was navigating between two different worlds,” she said. At the research lab she participated in conversations about how media shapes self-perception, the genesis of white privilege and developing agents of change. Within other social circles, she found herself debating whether college was a waste of time.

Atkinson knows going to college was right for her. She’s currently enrolled in management training at a major retailer and she said she has expanded her worldview while setting an example for her sons.

“I’ve been exposed to so much,” she said. “Things that are normal for this (campus) culture — like traveling abroad — were never normal for me.”

Her stimulating connections in the lab also made her realize how lonely she often felt while on campus.

“I didn’t have time for salsa classes or to join a student organization. I would have liked to do those things, but I had to get home to my kids,” Atkinson said.

Priced out of experiences

Brooke Evans has been working to find ways to help low-income students at UW-Madison feel more a part of the student experience. One initiative is to get free tickets to Badgers games and other “emblematic” college events to students who cannot afford to buy them, she said.

“Isolation is such a problem among vulnerable communities in higher education. I don’t think people realize how exclusive entry into some of these spaces feels,” she said.

Inclusion in campus activities can make a big difference in how students approach academic success, Evans said.

Members of the Working Class Student Union on the UW-Madison campus also talk about getting priced out of the “Wisconsin Experience.”

“Whether it’s unpaid internships or study abroad options, academic opportunities and resources are cut off from students because of financial struggles,” said Samuel Park, a sophomore studying neurobiology. “That’s something this institution doesn’t always take into account.”

Members of the organization, which works to celebrate class diversity and tries to fill gaps in basic supplies, say that UW-Madison, as a public university, should be accessible to all students who are accepted.


Samuel Park, member of the Working Class Student Union: “Excelling or networking requires a certain affluent background and cultural experience many people from lower class or working class backgrounds don’t come into college with."

“People should not be cut off from this institution, or even have a lesser quality education, because they can’t afford it or have to work more hours to afford it,” Park said.

But student social and professional organizations of many kinds require fees that can be hundreds of dollars and are out of reach for not just students who meet the definition of “low-income” under Pell grant guidelines, but many others with limited financial support.

“Excelling or networking requires a certain affluent background and cultural experience many people from lower class or working class backgrounds don’t come into college with,” Park said.

The son of parents who moved from Korea and then split up, Park said he never thought he’d be able to afford college while growing up with affluent friends who talked about private test tutors and visiting colleges on the coasts.

He won a scholarship to UW-Madison in high school, but once on campus found many things were out of reach. A Pell grant recipient who lives at home, Park was unable to come up with the $500 textbook tab last semester and had to use copies available – for two hours at a stretch – from the library, he said.

When students talk about meeting over dinner, Park said he has to carefully consider whether he can join them.

“Every meal I eat out, anything I buy, I think about how much more I need to work to cover it,” he said.

‘Gaps in the success route’

It’s not clear how many college students are at risk of hunger or homelessness, or in jeopardy of being pushed off course by unmet incidental expenses.

A study released by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab in December found that of 4,300 students surveyed at community college campuses around the country, half reported that they were at risk of hunger or homelessness. Another HOPE Lab study that included students at four-year campuses – UW-Madison among them – released in January found much lower incidences of food and housing insecurity at the four-year schools. That survey found 28 percent of students at four-year schools reported being hungry and 4 percent said they were unable to pay rent in the past year.

Moraine Park Technical College in Fond du Lac, whose students were part of the community college study, surveyed its own incoming freshman last fall and found that 40 percent were concerned about the stability of their housing while 77 percent feared they would run out of money before they reached their educational goal, director of admissions Bonnie Bauer said.

Bauer supervises Moraine Park’s decades old student emergency grant fund, which provides grants for housing, utility bills, vehicle repair, gas and food.

Emergency grant funds at Wisconsin’s 16 technical colleges got a boost in 2012-2015 with funding through Madison-based Great Lakes Higher Education Guaranty Corporation. At Moraine Park, that has meant $85,000 in emergency grants available over three years, an amount that dropped to $6,000 this year with the end of Great Lakes funding.

Moraine Park administrators are seeking other sources, “basically triaging the needs of students as they come in,” said counselor Amy Anderson.

Part of the Wisconsin Technical College System, Moraine Park enrollment is open to high school graduates. But open access doesn’t mean equal opportunity, Anderson said.

“We see all the time poverty and other issues that are hard to survive while students are trying to complete their education. There are so many gaps in the success route,” she said.

MATC, also called Madison College, is part of the Great Lakes continuing grant program for student emergency grants, through which it will receive $76,300 over the next two-and-a-half years, said Keith Cornille, senior vice president of student development and success. The school is working through its foundation to finalize a $150,000 gift to fund emergency grants to students, he said.

“Some of the largest barriers to completing education are around issues that happen outside the building,” Cornille said. He knows of five students who experienced homelessness last semester, he said.

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Filling those gaps

There’s evidence that helping students through financial emergencies pays off. School-reported data indicates that, over the three years of the Great Lakes program, 73 percent of emergency grant recipients either graduated or remained enrolled, said Great Lakes spokesperson Melissa McGraw. By comparison, the National Center for Education Statistics reports a 59 percent retention rate at public two-year institutions.

That apparent impact inspired state Rep. David Murphy, R-Greenville, to sponsor a bill to fund student emergency grants at state technical colleges and UW System two-year colleges in what may be the first public funding of such grants in the country.

“These are the students who are operating on a shoestring,” Murphy said.

The bill advanced in committee last week as part of a package touted by Gov. Scott Walker to address the high profile issue of college affordability. Democrats are opposing the package, saying it does too little for struggling students.

In addition to boosting its direct assistance to students with financial emergencies, MATC is working to leverage its partnerships with local assistance agencies, Cornille said.

Talks are underway to bring a Dane County social worker to campus on a regular schedule to help students take advantage of FoodShare, housing assistance or other programs they may be eligible for, Cornille said.

“Many people in our hallways are on or would benefit from quality assistance programs,” he said.

At UW-Madison, the Dean of Students hired a case manager this year, said associate dean Kevin Helmkamp.

“We were finding more students coming to us for assistance who had issues that the traditional student affairs model was not well designed to deal with,” Helmkamp said. The case manager connects students to services on and off campus, he said, and much of the unmet service demand is for mental health treatment.

“We’re seeing an increase in the whole range of mental health issues on campus,” from anxiety and depression to chronic mental illness, Helmkamp said.

Homelessness on campus is rare, and often connected to mental health issues, he said.

His office also distributes emergency student loans, rather than grants that are not repaid. Use of the loans is on a sharp trend up this school year, with 80 granted since August, compared to 55 for the full previous year, according to the Dean of Students office.

Two university programs, FASTrack and BANNER, offer low-income students grants and work opportunities in addition to loans to cover the full cost of attendance, UW-Madison spokesperson Meredith McGlone said.

The programs, for resident and nonresident students dependent on their parents, typically have served 1,000 students a year, officials said. UW-Madison’s enrollment of Pell grant recipients was 13.2 percent of all undergraduates — about 3,900 students — last year, according to university data.

A food pantry at UW-Madison

Helmkamp said his office is anxious to see what kind of use a new on-campus food pantry gets as an indicator of how frequent food insecurity is an issue for students.

The Open Seat is scheduled to open Friday on the fourth floor of the Student Activity Center, near the offices of Associated Students of Madison, the student government group sponsoring the pantry.

ASM appropriated $3,000 in student fees to pay for part-time student workers at the panty. Shelves are being stocked with non-perishable goods collected in food drives because student fees can’t be used to purchase food.

While taking inventory last week, volunteer Shane Linden said he has seen need for the pantry firsthand.

“I have friends who skip meals and don’t want to go to the dining hall because they don’t have enough money,” he said.

Formerly homeless student Evans is a co-chair of the task force on food and housing insecurity that has suggested some university housing be set aside for use by students who find themselves homeless. She left meetings with housing officials with the idea that if the task force raised the $12,000 annual lease fee, a unit would be available.

But Jeff Novak, director of University Housing, said that kind of use isn’t part of his agency’s mission.

“We’re designed as academic- year housing. They’re trying to meet what often is a short-term kind of stay,” Novak said. “Right now we have a wait list of people who want to occupy our space.”

Sara Goldrick-Rab, founding director of the HOPE Lab and professor in the UW-Madison School of Education, is eager to see the campus do more to help any students at risk of hunger and homelessness.

“What’s the critical mass we need to do something about homelessness on campus?” asked Goldrick-Rab. “I say the answer is one.”

Goldrick-Rab wants the university to take on the job of determining what is needed to support low-income students so they are able to succeed in school and provide it.

“Why in the world should students be using their fees to fund a food pantry for other students?” she asked. “Why should a task force of volunteers be coming up with the money for emergency housing? That’s crazy.”

Evans said she gets the feeling that the university doesn’t see that as part of its mission.

“Students are given the idea that if they can’t afford 100 percent of living costs, they shouldn’t be here,” Evans said. “An institution like this prides itself on its students’ excellence and merit. To discourage poor students because they are poor is doing a disservice to the state.”

McGlone said the university is actually leading on the issue.

“While we can and will do more, data show the successes we're already having supporting students,” McGlone said. “Three-quarters of our students who receive Pell grants graduate within six years — that's higher than the national average for all students. In December, The Education Trust named UW-Madison a national leader in improving graduation rates for underrepresented students.”

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