Could hunger be one reason Chicago students drop out of college?

Alexandria Carey graduated with good grades from Chicago Military Academy at Bronzeville and earned scholarships toward her tuition at City Colleges of Chicago. She’s precisely the kind of success story her school likes to talk about — a first-generation college student, a volleyball player, and student body president.

Carey doesn’t always know where her next meal will come from now that she’s in college. When money is tight, she’ll have chips for breakfast. (Many graduates of Chicago Public schools had relied on free or reduced price breakfasts and lunches while in K–12, something that’s no longer available to them after high school.)

“It’s hard for a lot of us,” said Carey, a freshman at Harry S Truman College. “These are students that are creative, open-minded, and strive as much as I do. To watch them struggle, it’s hard.”

A new study, released Thursday from the Hope Center at Temple University, backs up her assertion. Almost two-thirds of respondents enrolled at Chicago city colleges had experienced housing insecurity, food insecurity or homelessness in the last 30 days. Students who identify as Pell Grant recipients, veterans, LGBTQ, first-generation college students or student parents have higher rates of basic needs insecurities, the report showed.

“When you look at this report, you start to understand the depth of what our students have to persist through in order to get the thing that they covet, which is an education,” said Juan Salgado, chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago.

Such hardships around food and housing may help explain why so many graduates of Chicago Public Schools still struggle with getting through college. This past school year, Chicago had its highest-ever graduation and college enrollment rates — 78% and 65%, respectively, but college persistence rates still lag. A 2017 report from the UChicago Consortium on School Research found that just 19% of the Chicago ninth graders it followed had earned a bachelor’s degree 10 years later. (The report did not track two-year degree attainment.)

Only 22% of Chicago Public Schools graduates enrolled in a two-year college right after high school in 2017, according to the University of Chicago’s To&Through Project, tracking CPS students’ educational attainment. Many more of the Chicago’s students end up at city college at some point in their academic trajectory, according to Salgado.

Salgado said he has worked closely with Chicago Public Schools CEO Janice Jackson to raise awareness about the resources at his colleges, such as an emergency fund for students in crisis and, by this fall, food pantries on all seven city college campuses.

Nathaniel Maldonado, a 50-year-old Chicago Public Schools alumnus, used the food pantry at Wilbur Wright College as a recent student. He graduated in May 2017 and currently volunteers at the food pantry he once frequented.

“Look at my hands, what I go through and struggle because I worked at a manufacturing company, low paying,” he said. “If you don’t want to do this, pursue your education. It’s not easy going to school, but it’s very rewarding.”

Rewarding, yes, said Carey, but for students struggling to meet their basic needs, it’s hard to focus on grades or graduation. Survival comes first.