When Sonya Thomas-Brown first started attending Pellissippi State Community College, she lived paycheck to paycheck.
"It was very hard to manage things," she said. "I would have to juggle bills, figure out what I could be late on versus what needed to be paid."
Thomas-Brown was a non-traditional student. Although she had good grades in high school, she didn't start her college career until she was 39 years old. For a time out of high school in 1993, Thomas-Brown remembers making as little as $5.25 an hour working at her local Wal-Mart. She eventually became a certified nursing assistant, and was able to work with multiple clients from 2014 until 2019, earning about $12 an hour.
Still, Thomas-Brown qualified for a Pell Grant. And even though she worked multiple jobs and took every opportunity for scholarship or grants that she could, she still found herself going hungry.
Drema Bowers is the director of the department of student care and advocacy at Pellissippi State, a center that helps students like Thomas-Brown connect with resources like Pellissippi's food pantry, or a local church group who is currently helping a homeless student stay a few nights in a hotel.
“Many people think that the students using our supports are not working," said Bowers. "Most of the students who come to us are working. Some are working two jobs or more."
Thomas-Brown never wanted to take food from anyone who might have needed it more, but there were times, she said, that that food pantry "saved me until the end of the month, or until I got paid."
Tennessee’s minimum wage currently corresponds with the federal rate, which has not been changed since 2007: $7.25. The federal minimum tipped wage is $2.13. At the beginning of this year, Vermont Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders proposed a bill to raise the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, raising the hopes of many student workers. So far, the bill has not gained traction.
Across America, students at community colleges are dropping out of institutions due to financial stressors. According to data collected by the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) at the University of Texas at Austin in 2017, which interviewed almost 150,000 community college students, roughly half worked over 20 hours a week. Sixty-three percent (63%) said they lived paycheck to paycheck, and that number increased to 74% if students had children living with them.
Dr. Linda García, the executive director at the CCCSE, said their research found 25% of older students (above 24 years old) said they were struggling to pay for college.
“Students are encountering challenges and if students are concerned about paying their rent, providing food, paying for college—those factors will impact their progress [toward graduation],” she said.
Similarly, a 2016 study from the Urban Institute on minimum wage and higher education showed that a student working 800 hours a year in the 1960s and 1970s could afford to pay tuition, fees, and generally room and board at a four-year institution. Since 2002, students working 800 hours at minimum wage could only cover 57% of the average tuition and fees alone. By 2017, 800 hours of work at the minimum wage covered barely 28%.
Minimum wage varies from state to state, as does the cost of living. Some states have signed pledges to increase their minimum wage. The District of Columbia, for example, currently has the highest minimum wage at $15 an hour. D.C. is also one of the most expensive places to live in the country.
The University of the District of Columbia Chief of Student Development and Success Officer Dr. William Latham said that their increased minimum wage gave students a “nice jump.” Instead of taking on many jobs, students will take on only one, which “allows them to focus more on their educational process.”
Latham said an increased minimum wage impacted something else as well: the way the students see their own value.
“People want to be heard, seen, and valued," he said. "Socio-economic circumstances don’t necessarily support that picture. You are valued, you are supported.”
But an increased minimum wage in one of the most expensive cities still means that sometimes students are faced with difficult choices, like whether to take the metro to class or have lunch. That’s why Latham said his counselors engage in an “intrusive” style of advising.
“We want a holistic conversation with our students—how are you, how’s your family, how’s your kids—not to intrude but be aware, to provide connections to allow that student to persist," he said. "That approach has helped move the needle and improve retention.”
According the CCCSE data, over 80% of working students don’t share the fact that they are working with their teachers or the administration.
When Colorado voted to increase their minimum wage in 2016, Dr. Ryan Ross of the Colorado Community College System said that their institutions were given an opportunity to attract more students to their work-study programs or into jobs on campus.
“When you’re looking at making $15 versus $8 or $9, it gives you a lot of flexibility in your choices, more resources," he said. "You feel safer and more stable. ‘Hey, I’m gonna at least take a part time loan, qualify for a Pell grant, and use my work resources to pay for school and take care of the bills at home.'”
It’s that feeling of security that can make all the difference to a working student, said Ross.
“You go to school from 9 a.m. until 2 p. m., and then work from 4 p.m. until midnight and study overnight, and sometimes have children, day care, expenses—the reality is, it’s a heavy toll on a student’s mental health.”
“The more students have to work, the less likely they are to persist,” said Dr. Leigh Anne Touzeau, the vice president for enrollment services at Pellissippi State. “If a student can look at their academics and persist toward a degree as their job, they’ll be much more likely to graduate. But when they have a lot of other things to deal with, paying the bills, working 30 to 40 hours a week, that then brings their likelihood down to persist and graduate.”
Compared to much of the United States, the cost of living in Tennessee is comparatively low, as it is in Oklahoma, where Gary Davidson works as the executive director at the Oklahoma Association of Community Colleges (OACC).
“The vast majority of our students in Oklahoma, are working and going to school and many have families," said Davidson. "There’s enormous financial pressure… our students will just miss car payment, or something breaks down, and they have to drop out of school.”
“Nationally, over half of all community college students meet the requirements to be on food stamps, but a very small percent actually [use them]," said Davidson. "We’re a poor state by any metric, and the one thing we strongly believe in is that education changes lives."
For all these institutions, scholarship opportunities, federal relief funding, and local community outreach and connections have made the difference for many students. Thinking creatively, community colleges have been able to ease financial problems for many of their students. In Oklahoma, “over half of our students graduate with zero debt,” said Davidson, thanks in no small part to the efforts made behind the scenes to keep their students enrolled and on track to graduate.
For Sonya Thomas-Brown, the opportunities that have opened up to her since attaining her associate's at Pellissippi State have come with higher earnings. She is now the interim sustainability coordinator with the department of student care and advocacy at Pellissippi State. She's working while she continues her educational journey, working toward her bachelor's degree at Tusculum University.
Before getting her associate's degree, Thomas-Brown said she "had never felt like I was in a place of comfort, I always had uncertainty,"
Right now, she said, "I feel comfortable. I feel positive and secure. And that’s all that matters to me at this point."