MY VIEW By Sarita Cargas

Mar 23, 2024

Original Published in The Santa Fe New Mexican

Editor’s note: This is the latest in an occasional series on hunger in New Mexico.

College students are a privileged and entitled bunch. Or are they? Though it is a privilege to be recipients of the Opportunity Scholarship, for many, the opportunity to graduate with a degree will not be realized. Perhaps this is because thousands of New Mexico college students are hungry.

A recent survey by our University of New Mexico research team, soon to be publicly available, reveals 58% of students who participated in the study were food insecure, 46% were housing insecure and 14% were homeless. While it is too early to tell how many students will graduate on the Opportunity Scholarship, previous trends do not bode well.

The current six-year graduation rate at UNM is 47%, and many other New Mexico colleges have lower graduation rates. More than just good academic habits are required to reach the end goal. It is hard to study without a full stomach and a safe place to sleep. The basic needs of food and shelter come first, and thousands of our students do not have them.

This is what one student answered sarcastically when I asked a class to tell me if they felt privileged: “Does being privileged include having to worry about your next meal? … As a privileged college student, I get to neglect my basic needs to pass courses … while trying to help make this world a better place as a researcher and still barely afford … instant ramen.” In the statewide survey, students also shared experiences like: “Once I was so hungry that I did not have the energy to go to class, and I took a failing grade for the week.” Another said: “I had to miss class on more than one occasion to sell plasma so I could buy food.”

Perhaps you are wondering if they are working. The majority do have jobs. Even working full time does not guarantee stability because of the low-wage work students often do. This student explained, “My rent is behind, so sometimes I get overwhelmed and think it would be best I stop school and find another full-time job, and just work two full-time jobs.” We also discovered the problem of needs insecurity affects graduate students as much as undergraduates. Sometimes this is due to the fact that graduates working as teaching or research assistants on campus are not paid enough to live on. They told us that “the graduate assistantship stipends barely cover rent, bills, groceries and gas.” And, “The pay isn’t high enough for me to regularly eat healthy food. … I work [part time] and take 9-12 credit hours each semester, plus regular service work for my department, and trying to fit my own research in there somewhere, which means I do not have the time to pursue a regular second job.” It will come as no surprise that our data proves that needs-insecure students tend to have lower grades and more commonly drop out than their needs secure peers.

Though getting a college degree is the single best method of assuring upward mobility, leaving school without a degree and debt has contributed to downward mobility for the nearly 40 million Americans in this situation. Even with the Opportunity Scholarship, going to school carries expenses usually while working in low-paying jobs. The college dropouts in our state are in real economic danger if they do not finish with a credential. They need more support while in school.

Therefore, it is time do away with the myth of the privileged college student.

Sarita Cargas, Ph.D., is an associate professor of human rights at the University of New Mexico Honors College.

Original My View link from Santa Fe New Mexican:

Volunteer Richard Martinez loads strawberries as volunteers shuttle boxes of food for a line of cars stretching down Siler Road during the The Food Depot's drive-thru food distribution Thursday. The demand for food hasn't let up since the pandemic, a sign people are continuing to struggle to recover while facing economic pressures like high food prices and housing costs in Santa Fe. Jim Weber/The New Mexican