A new report finds many community college students in the Garden State are struggling for the bare necessities of life.

The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice surveyed more than 9,000 students last fall at 17 of New Jersey’s 18 community colleges for the #RealCollege report and found 39% of respondents were food insecure in the prior 30 days, 44% were housing insecure during the previous 12 months and 14% of students were homeless during that time frame.

Food insecurity refers to not always being able to eat when you’re hungry.

Zakiya Smith Ellis, the state higher education secretary, said the figures might sound surprising but we know that many community college students are struggling to make ends meet.

“Community colleges tend to serve students that are more likely to be at the margins, so these are going to be students who are generally lower income than you might think of as your typical college student," she said.

“Many times these are students who have children of their own, so there are large numbers of students who are not what you would think of as your traditional college students.”

Ellis pointed out a lot of times these individuals are enrolled at a community college to be able to get the credentials they need for a better job.

“And they’re doing that while they’re raising children of their own. They’re doing that while they’re working. Many of these students are really living at the margins and on the edge.”

She said to address the issue of food insecurity, a series of Hunger Free Campus Act Grant program funds will soon be awarded.

New Jersey community colleges are sharing best practices to help students get information about local resources.

“Sometimes the thing you need, that students need most is to be connected with existing social services in their community," Ellis said.

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A growing number of community colleges have set up food pantries. Ellis said the best approach is to make the food pantry as anonymous as possible.

“Students a lot of times will feel stigma. They don’t want to feel like they’re someone who needs to use some kind of social service resource," she said.

She pointed out issues highlighted in the report have a definite effect on graduation rates.

The #RealCollege report lists five reasons to address the issues raised in the survey:

1. Boost academic performance, helping the institution and its students retain federal financial aid. It also promotes retention and degree completion, helping the institution generate more tuition dollars and improving outcomes about which legislators care.

2. Reduce the barriers that returning adults face, boosting enrollment.

3. Make the jobs of faculty and staff easier, as students are more able to focus on learning.

4. Create bridges between the institution and community organizations, bringing new relationships and resources to bear. It also creates a productive opportunity for the private sector to engage with the institution to help create the graduates that everyone wants to hire.

5. Generate new philanthropic giving and create opportunities to engage alumni who do not have much but will happily contribute to emergency aid.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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