Jonas Labaze of Norwalk, a volunteer at the Norwalk Community College food pantry, places expiration-date labels on food items. Rachael A. DiPietro
Jonas Labaze of Norwalk, a volunteer at the Norwalk Community College food pantry, places expiration-date labels on food items.
Jonas Labaze of Norwalk, a volunteer at the Norwalk Community College food pantry, places expiration-date labels on food items. Rachael A. DiPietro

When Tyrone Bullock, 41, enrolled at Norwalk Community College two years ago, there was no food pantry for older, single parents who, like him, needed food assistance. That changed in February, when the community college opened the second food pantry on a Connecticut college campus, which Bullock now uses and at which he volunteers.

The food pantry has also helped younger students like Pavel Bure, who at 18 dreams of graduating college to become a naval officer but struggles to support his physically disabled mother, pay for school and feed himself. Within the first two weeks of the pantry’s opening, Bure had maxed out his 20-item allotment, mostly taking out beans and other high-calorie foods.

Bullock and Bure represent a group of what college officials call nontraditional students, such as veterans, single parents and full-time workers, attending community colleges in the state. The majority of students who attend these public colleges are considered low-income and qualify for need-based financial aid.

Responding to job market demands for a college degree, nontraditional students often lead hectic lives and struggle to cobble together sources of aid to stay in school, including scholarships, grants, and services such as counseling, day care and food assistance.

At the same time, there are concerns that the availability of assistance may be squeezed by looming state budget cuts and tuition increases.

Nontraditional student needs

Providing the services that help nontraditional students succeed is left to leaders at the individual colleges in the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system.

While a definition of a nontraditional student is fluid, those who work with these community college students see recurring patterns of circumstances and needs.

Those patterns may occur in both younger and older students.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, Connecticut’s dozen community colleges enrolled 22,630 students aged 25 or older and 34,347 below age 25 in 2013. But many students below age 25 live in so-called “adult circumstances.”

“We define by circumstance…Being 19 and having a child means you have adult circumstances; if you pay your own bills, you have adult circumstances,” said Rachael A. DiPietro, organizer of the food pantry at Norwalk.

Nationally, 23 percent of all college students have dependent children, reports Public Agenda, a nonpartisan think tank.

“There are folks who are just making it who say, ‘I know I have to finish my degree…but if I can’t keep the lights and heat on and have to work five jobs to do that, then I cannot succeed in school,’” said Kristina Testa-Buzzee, director of the Office of Adult Learning at Norwalk Community College?.

The adult learning office at Norwalk, and similar offices at other Connecticut community colleges, were created to help meet the most common needs of nontraditional students.

The directors of these offices say that common barriers to success are food insecurity, growing student debt, lack of transportation, and the need for financial counseling and day care.

Ten of the 12 Connecticut community colleges provided day care in the fall 2013 semester. Nationwide, the number of community colleges providing day care has decreased over the last decade from 53 percent in 2003 to 46 percent in 2013, according to the American Association of Community Colleges.

Duncan Harris, who runs a program to train community college staff about student needs and available resources, said that the great recession and rising education standards in the modern job market are an impetus for nontraditional students to return to school.

Duncan — the executive director of the Student Success Center for the college system — expects that colleges will change the way they deliver an education in the future, both in terms of credits and meeting student needs.

“You have individuals that, for whatever reason, have the idea that, ‘I started college and didn’t finish.’ In 2015 you see other options, ‘I may be able to complete courses online, and in the 80s and 90s that wasn’t an option,’” Harris said.

The Food Pantry

Norwalk opened its food pantry in February — one of about 120 nationwide. The pantry was funded by an AmeriCorps grant and is run by DiPietro.

DiPietro and the community college recognized food insecurity as a major issue facing college students. Although they did not have specific figures for students with low incomes or food needs, they made inferences based on the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches in the area’s public schools and a number of reports that investigated food insecurity for families in Fairfield County.

“We base it on what the K-12 system is feeding to us. The majority of our students come from Stamford and Norwalk. If you look at those students that have access to free or reduced lunch, it is about 48 percent. We’re operating as though a large proportion of those students are coming to NCC,” DiPietro said.

A report titled “Hunger Lives Here,” compiled by the Fairfield County Community Foundation, provided another measure. Food insecurity in Fairfield county hovered around 15 percent for both children and adults in 2011.

DiPietro worked with the Office of Adult Learning at Norwalk to organize the pantry.

In its first two weeks of operation, the pantry drew in nine needy students, some of whom, like Bullock, signed up as volunteers.

“Those nine students that came in this week were so incredibly grateful,” DiPietro said

The pantry is open three hours a day, five days a week, and is located in a discreet area of the West Campus, where most student-support services are. DiPietro hopes other Connecticut colleges follow NCC’s example and open their own pantries.

Three Rivers community college in Norwhich, Connecticut opened a food pantry in 2013.

“I was really happy (when the pantry opened), because my mother is disabled, and we’re living on a fixed income. I don’t really have time to cook,” Bure said.

Bure contends with a tight financial situation and a one-hour commute to college from Greenwich on a scooter.

“Most of the people here, they’re living life, paying taxes; they have full time jobs and everything. They’re here for a purpose,” he said.

Foundations and Scholarships

In another initiative to aid needy students, Quinebaug Valley Community College has set a goal of ensuring that all its students graduate without student debt. A key element of the strategy is the QVCC Foundation, created to support scholarships and grants.

According to Monique Wolanin, QVCC director of community engagement, the foundation’s mission is to raise funds so residents can attend school, regardless of income.

Though Windham County is the state’s least affluent county, and the college is one of the state’s smallest community colleges, intensive fund-raising has made the foundation the second-largest community college foundation in the state. Last fiscal year it raised $432,576.

“For a lot of students in Windham (County), coming to QVCC is the only option they know,” said Alfred Williams, dean of students at QVCC. “The way for them to get out of poverty is to go to QVCC.”

Williams said homelessness is not as prevalent in northeastern Connecticut as elsewhere, but students were accumulating debt by taking out loans to pay for transportation, food or other nonacademic needs. The foundation targets these bills with an Emergency Scholarship Program.

“There are situations as the school year goes on, like you have a student that has a high heating bill and can’t cover it. So they will apply to the emergency scholarship program and get those targeted grants,” Williams said.

CSCU’s Harris sees a potential shift in the way that schools fund programs for nontraditional students: reaching out to community-based organizations to make up the shortfall.

“As colleges seek to figure out how to get it done, they’re going to have to look to other stakeholders to see these students be successful,” Harris said.

Kasie Bouchard, a QVCC student studying business administration, said she decided to go back to college to keep up with the real world.

Bouchard dropped out of high school at 17. At 24, after her son was born, she enrolled at QVCC.

“I had my son, and, to be honest, I didn’t want him to be like, ‘Wow, my mom is pretty dumb, she didn’t even graduate high school,” she said.

Bouchard is a federal work-study student and receives $2,100 a year in scholarships.

Bouchard said she sees many students who live on their own and are at a disadvantage when they apply for federal financial aid because their parents still list them as dependents but do not contribute to their education. Nonetheless, the family’s finances are taken into account when computing Pell Grant eligibility.

“So for the people who have been living on their own since they were 18 years old, their mom and dad aren’t paying anything for them, especially to go to school, so they’re the ones who are affected the most.”

Financial Aid and Borrowing

Financial aid helps thousands of needy students pay for college.

Last school year, Connecticut community college students received $114.8 million in financial aid. Nearly $20 million came from the tuition dollars other students pay, $82.2 million came from federal Pell Grants that students are not required to repay, and the remainder came from state aid.

Over the last five years, federal financial aid expenditures have increased by $43.9 million — a 62 percent spike since 2009. The average Pell grant for Connecticut community college students in 2013 was $4,405, and 42.5 percent of community college students received Pell grants in 2013-14.

There is still unmet demand, however. Although the community colleges are not broken out, 3,879 students did not receive the aid they requested last school year in the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities system, which includes the community colleges and four regional Connecticut state universities.

QVCC’s Williams said, nontraditional students are threatened most by gaps in financial aid since they need to pay for both school and living expenses.

Federal loan default rates at Connecticut community colleges
There are many ways for community college students to receive financial aid, including grants, scholarships and loans. But students who take on federal loans take on the risk of defaulting, and student loan debt is not forgiven by bankruptcy. This table shows federal loan default rates for students in the 2011 cohort, looking at whether they defaulted within three years of beginning repayment. Note that at many of these community colleges, small numbers of students take out federal loans so default rates are volatile from year to year.
School Avg. price per year, not including aid that doesn’t have to be paid back People who defaulted People making payments Rate Students enrolled
Asnuntuck CC (Enfield) $6,125 3 42 7% 1,673
Capital CC (Hartford) $7,985 16 91 18% 4,425
Gateway CC (New Haven) $6,422 28 283 9.8% 7,976
Housatonic CC (Bridgeport) $4,441 27 178 15.1% 6,077
Manchester CC (Manchester) $4,209 11 102 10.7% 7,692
Middlesex CC (Middletown) $3,730 14 119 11.7% 2,933
Naugatuck Valley CC (Waterbury) $6,080 33 284 11.6% 7,419
Northwestern CC (Winsted) $7,073 4 98 4% 1,423
Norwalk CC (Norwalk) $7,353 4 39 10.2% 6,810
Quinebaug Valley CC (Danielson) $5,510 2 19 10.5% 2,086
Three Rivers CC (Norwich) $3,937 17 129 13.1% 4,980
Tunxis CC (Farmington) $6,040 27 191 14.1% 4,734
Total 58,228

How Help Finds Its Way

Nontraditional students often have to cope with many conflicting demands that interfere with accessing support. Although Bullock is currently active in the human services programs at his school, it took him a year to find out that he could apply for a $1,500 scholarship.

Bullock said some of his peers are working multiple jobs and have responsibilities on top of school work, and in the hustle of class and personal life, they can miss signs that point to help.

“They’re running on fumes; they get barely three hours of sleep,” Bullock said. “I think I got four hours of sleep because I went to bed doing homework, then woke up early in the morning so I can have an hour to finish the homework today.”

Nationally, 60 percent of community college students work 20 hours a week, and 25 percent work 30 hours or more per week, according to a report done for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Some professors have taken it upon themselves to help students with the difficulties they face.

Volunteers organize donations from a food drive for the Norwalk Community College food pantry.
Volunteers organize donations from a food drive for the Norwalk Community College food pantry. Rachael A. DiPietro

For example, Bullock struggled to find a babysitter for his daughter, Zahara, while he attended night classes, so his professor told him to bring her to class.

“She doesn’t know it, but she’s getting conditioned for college, because she sees me doing my homework all the time and she comes to class with me,” Bullock said. “Thank god for some of these professors that understand my situation. They allow me to bring her to my classroom, and she watches a movie on her DVD player with headphones.”

What Gets Cut

With the president of the college system promising to make $22 million in cuts to close the system’s deficit, there are concerns that the programs that help nontraditional students may suffer.

“Critical decisions are going to have to be made. Everything has got to be on the table, and that is really unfortunate,” said Michael Kozlowski, a spokesman for CSCU.

For example, Kozlowski said, a program such as day care could be cut so faculty and courses can be retained.

Northwestern Community College in Winsted, Connecticut, in fact, closed its child care in 2014, and was only recently able to reinstate Saturday library hours.

Cuts to library and tutoring hours can be particularly difficult for nontraditional students, Bullock said, because some textbooks are very expensive and must be read and shared at the library.

Nontraditional students often cannot afford to lose services like day care and extra tutoring, said Bure.

“You think to yourself, ‘What happens if you don’t finish this homework?” said Bure. “If you don’t get it in on time, you get a worse GPA than you were trying to.’ There is this whole chain reaction of things, ‘what if, what if, what if.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story gave incorrect information about why Kasie Bouchard dropped out of high school and when she returned to college.

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