Access Student faces housing insecurity during breaks

By Emma Loenicker

In the fall of 2014, the University of Puget Sound launched a new scholarship program for Tacoma Public School (TPS) students. This initiative is part of Puget Sound’s Access Programs which has offered enrichment opportunities in partnership with TPS for grades 7 to 12 since 1995. The Access Programs provide various opportunities for pre-college programming, including weekly tutoring, college-specific skill workshops, and the summer academic challenge program (SAC). Recipients of the Access Scholarship are typically students from low-income families, communities of color, or first-generation college students. Access Programs is housed in the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity under the supervision of Assistant Director for Access Programs Doris Tinsley. However, the program’s efficacy requires the collaboration of academic advising, housing services, enrollment, financial services, and various other units across campus.

For nearly ten years, Access Programs has worked alongside TPS to increase representation in higher education by meeting students’ full financial needs. The Access Scholarship essentially makes up for the inconsistency between what federal aid will provide and how much a family can actually afford. Thus, the grant amount given to each Access Scholar will vary, but it is common for the scholarship to amount to a full-ride. The scholarship is active for ten semesters and covers the base-level cost of attendance, including the average rate for tuition, book supplies, room, board, and student government fees. If Access Scholars choose a premium living space or an upgraded meal plan, they become financially responsible for the differential.

“With Access Scholars, it’s not just the financial package,” said Vice President of Institutional Equity and Diversity, Dr. Lorna Hernandez Jarvis. “Beyond that, we also pair them with a mentor that is separate from their academic advisor, as well as the Assistant Director of Access Programs, Doris Tinsley, and then we do programming with them to help them navigate college life.” As a nationally recognized program, the Access Scholarship set a precedent for Puget Sound to continue breaking down educational barriers for talented, yet underprivileged high school graduates. Drawing from a pool of eligible students that have participated in the pre-college programming efforts, Puget Sound selects a cohort of roughly ten Access Scholars per year to receive a discount of full demonstrated need after federal loans and grants are applied.

The funding for Puget Sound scholarship programs like Access is generated through tuition revenue, donations, and endowed programs. “At least 50% of every dollar of tuition revenue is turned back in the form of financial aid for students,” said Associate Vice President for Student Financial Services Maggie Mittuch. Access Scholars typically have a low expected family contribution (EFC), if any at all, so this program represents a fairly substantial commitment from the University.

One Access Scholar, who wished to remain annonymous, currently living in one of the top-tier accommodations explained how difficult it has been to balance school and the two jobs she holds to afford her housing fees. While greatly appreciative of the opportunity the Access Scholarship has given her, she has concerns about the lack of support she receives during school breaks. Since the Access Scholarship functions in accordance with the federal aid calendar, Access Scholars are not granted the same degree of support during summer or winter breaks. Following the loss of her mother, this Access Scholar has faced housing insecurity, and feels that it’s important for Puget Sound to provide housing security during the summer for students who need it.

According to a Seattle Times article from January 2023, 49% of Washington college students face food or housing insecurity. This is in line with national trends as student cries continue to grow for affordable housing and University support.

“When we learn about new barriers and new situations with certain students, that’s when we pull together the teams here at the University,” said Dr. Hernandez Jarvis. In extreme circumstances, like when a student is facing housing insecurity, several units across campus intervene to identify other opportunities to help Access Scholars persist. 

“It can be difficult to serve every student to the nth degree when you are trying to support a population,” said Mittuch. Maintaining adequate funding for such programs can also pose challenges.

“Since we, like many colleges, are heavily tuition dependent to run the organization, it can be difficult to leverage more of our revenue back to aid.” Declining enrollment over the last few years puts more pressure on donation gifts and endowed programs to fill the unmet need for scholarship students, like those in the Access Program.

Through various partnerships aiming to make higher education more accessible, Puget Sound has enriched lives and surrounding communities. The Tacoma Promise and collaborations with the Posse Foundation are similar commitments made by the University to make higher education more financially accessible. With the Tacoma-based Access Programs in particular, Puget Sound has fostered an important relationship between the campus and its surrounding community. However, Dr. Hernandez Jarvis acknowledges that there are many roadblocks standing in the way of making college completely affordable for Access Scholars. For students struggling with extreme circumstances like housing insecurity, the stakes are higher, but the ability to expand services is still reliant on greater resources, which Puget Sound does not currently have.