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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

College vs. poverty

Amarillo College’s war on poverty includes a food pantry, a clothing closet and a supply of free toiletries and “an emergency fund that can cut a check within hours to cover the car-repair or water bill,” reports Marcella Bombardieri in The Atlantic.

Alicia Pruett is studying at Amarillo College, working as a cook and raising five children. Photo: Adria Malcolm/Atlantic

The community college in the Texas panhandle provides a low-cost day care center open 14 hours a day, a legal-aid clinic and free mental-health counseling. Social workers help students weather financial crises so they can stay in school.

Tutoring is available evenings and weekends, she writes. “In its quest to improve student performance, the college is questioning academic traditions as fundamental as the length of a semester, which has been cut in half for many classes.”

But is it enough?

Bombardieri focuses on Alicia Pruett, a 44-year-old mother of six (five live with her), who hopes to earn a communication degree, “hoping she could one day do PR for an adoption or foster agency.” Pruett is employed, but her husband, an unemployed roofer with back problems, has trouble finding a steady job because of his criminal record.

Pruett took advantage of the food pantry, and the college emergency fund covered half a month’s rent and some utility bills. (Social services director Jordan) Herrera put Pruett in touch with a local church that also chipped in. More importantly, she helped Pruett get on the waitlist for a Section 8 housing program that provides affordable rentals to college students with families. Months later, just before Easter, the housing program offered Pruett’s family a four-bedroom house for $1,000 a month. But when they gave notice to their current landlord, she put them out on the street with three days’ notice, even though they wouldn’t get the new place for a couple of weeks. Herrera tried to find shelter beds for the family, but no one could offer space for a family of seven. So the college paid for them to stay about 10 days in a Travelodge.

Then, the family truck was repossessed. The college’s donor-funded foundation paid $1,200 so Pruett could get it back and start a part-time job in the cafe at Sam’s Club. A few weeks later, she needed emergency surgery for a perforated bowel and an infection.

Months later, as she prepared to return to school, her husband was ordered to pay restitution for a bad check he’d written a year earlier or go to jail. They needed $200. Once again, the college foundation helped.

Pruett dreams of completing her associate degree, then transferring to Louisiana State University to earn a bachelor’s degree. The last time Bombardieri was in touch, the family was facing eviction for missing a paperwork deadline.

WalMart, which owns Sam’s Club, will offer employees like Pruett college courses in business or supply-chain management for $1 a day. For a woman trying to support five children, that sounds like a better bet than communications.

To help low-income students complete their degrees, universities are offering emergency grants, write Rick Hess and Lanae Erickson Hatalsky on AEI.  “For example, Georgia State University issues automatic completion grants to college-level juniors and seniors with unmet financial need. On average, these grants are about $900 each, and they help students overcome the stumbling blocks that can be posed by expenses like heating bills and textbook costs.”

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