SAN MARCOS — For San Marcos’ Palomar College, it’s a tale of two cities.
With a $67 million library located on the fourth floor, the community college with roughly 25,000 students has a proposal in the works to build a $1 million, 2,200-square-foot office suite for its president, Joi Lin Blake.
But the view below has revealed a student body not only struggling to pay tuition, but many living at the poverty line.
According to Palomar College’s demographic data collected by its Institutional Research and Planning wing, 45 percent of its student base is classified as economically disadvantaged.
Under federal law, that is defined as “individuals (other than individuals with disabilities) who have economic or academic disadvantages and who require special services and assistance in order to enable these individuals to succeed.”
Further, some 69.8 percent of enrolled students at Palomar College applied for financial aid for the 2016-2017 school year, according to data collected by the college published in its annual 2016-2017 FaceBook. From that pool, 60.9 percent ended up receiving financial aid, or 14,711 students.
One of those students is Michelle (real name protected in response to a request for anonymity), a 54-year-old student who has returned to college late in life as a commuter student with hopes of bettering her economic situation.
Michelle began attending Palomar College during the summer 2018 semester and hopes to leave school “when she grows up,” she jokes, as a financial advisor and tax preparer.
To pay the bills, Michelle told The Coast News that she works part-time once a week for eight hours at a Walmart in Escondido. She formerly worked full-time at that same Walmart store, commuting daily from her home in Palomar Mountain nearly an hour away.
When home, she takes care of her husband, a Vietnam War veteran who suffers from both heart failure and stage five terminal kidney failure.
She says he has no retirement from the military and is on both Medicare and Social Security Disability Insurance.
Those federal payments leave her spouse with $1,000 per month for living expenses, including food, medication, and other necessities.
Michelle also works part-time at the campus food pantry, the Anita & Stan Maag Food & Nutrition Center, as part of a work-study program to help fund her education.
At the food pantry, food insecure students who apply and are eligible, can receive up to 15 pounds of donated food per month.
Michelle, who herself had a double brain aneurysm in 2007 and was given a 10 percent chance of survival, said that attending Palomar College has awakened her to the economic plight faced by young people attending college today.
She has met at least half a dozen homeless students who sleep in their cars and often choose between paying for food or paying for gas and tuition. Given her own background, she can relate.
“I could not go to college because I was responsible for helping to take care of my family financially,” she said. “We were also too poor to even consider me going to college. I started working odd jobs when I was 9 years old to help support my family and myself.”
A study published in April 2018 by the University of Wisconsin — covering 43,000 students at 66 institutions in 20 states and the District of Columbia — concluded that 42 percent of community college students faced food insecurity, 51 percent faced housing insecurity and 12 percent of those surveyed dealt with homelessness.
According to Amber Bancroft, the student body president who also serves as a student trustee for the Palomar College board of governors, economically insecure students encompass a vast swath of those who come to her office as her constituents as an elected officeholder.
“Some examples that I have witnessed are students who have had their financial aid withheld, which put them on the verge of homelessness, students who were sleeping in their vehicle … and students who couldn’t afford food or textbooks,” Bancroft said. “Many people are not understanding of how students can be facing basic needs or housing insecurities and often blame them. This stigma makes it so that students aren’t willing to self-identify or ask for help when they most need it.”
Bancroft said this can lead to students performing poorly academically and then subsequently even dropping out of college altogether.
Bancroft pays for tuition with scholarships, as well as through her paid position on the board of governors and work as a lab assistant at Palomar College’s Department of Chemistry.
She hopes to utilize the her student government leadership position to tackle the issue of economic hardship faced by Palomar College students in the weeks and months ahead.
“The current student government board has been very proactive about addressing these issues because a lot of our members struggle with these insecurities,” Bancroft said. “The student government has passed a resolution for Palomar College in order to open up a parking lot for safe overnight parking for students who have vehicle residency as well as bring affordable student housing to campus.”
It’s not just students who have called attention to the socio-economic present at Palomar College.
Rocco Versaci, an English Professor at Palomar College, says that he believes that at its core, the situation at Palomar College parallels trends seen at universities and colleges nationwide. For Versaci, a professor at Palomar College, a business-centered outlook at higher education serves as the central culprit at-play.
“And it finally dawned on me that what that actually means is that, you know, the workers often get screwed and the CEOs get enriched in different ways,” Versaci said. “There seems to be a general trend in education where the college president spends more time kind of insulating themselves with the board than leading the school in the kind of meaningful way that benefits all.”
For Michelle, she says it’s a daily a struggle to sleep, often three to four hours per night, and study for classes.
“But what’s the end goal and the end game?” she asks rhetorically, saying she hopes not to remain in a low-wage career at the end of the road at Palomar College. “I’m trying to remain positive. Every day, I drive down Palomar Mountain on the way to classes and pray to God to be in a better place and opportunity in life.”
Steve Horn is a San Diego, CA-based reporter covering Escondido and San Marcos. He works in a full-time capacity for The Real News Network, an online broadcast news outlet, covering climate change. He has worked as a staff investigative reporter for the publications Prison Legal News and Criminal Legal News and as an investigative reporter for the climate news website DeSmog.com. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org.