Monday, December 06, 2010


Research Design in a Recession

My college is planning a major student survey for the Spring. We’re drawing up questions that we think could help shape budget priorities over the next few years, assuming there’s actually enough money to have some level of discretion. (That’s far from certain.) We’ve got several of the usual questions: have they seen their academic advisor, how often do they use the library, etc. I suggested one asking whether they have internet access at home, so we could get a sense of the degree to which more open computer labs might help.

The folks putting the survey together rejected the question, on the grounds that too many of our students are homeless, and the question assumes a home. They thought it would be insensitive.

I hadn’t thought of that.

In conversation with one professor who has several homeless students, she mentioned that they’re actually doing reasonably well academically. When she asked them how they do it, they told her -- individually -- that they saw academic success as the way out of homelessness. One of them told her that classes were the only positive thing in her life at this point, so she enjoys focusing on them. Everything else is just depressing.

It’s getting cold at night this time of year.

Colleges were never built for this. They were originally built for the second sons of the aristocracy, and even now they work ‘best’ for students with all of the usual advantages. Community colleges are much closer to the ground than most of the rest of higher ed, but even here, the assumption has always been that students have a place to go. The term “commuter college” at least assumes that students have a place from which to commute.

The assumption of a home runs deep. Professors assign ‘home’work. Tuition levels vary depending on residency, which assumes the existence of a residence. The campus is able to close on Sundays and late at night because it assumes that everyone has somewhere else to go.

Invalidate that assumption, and things get tricky. When the library becomes a shelter of last resort, it loses its availability as a study area for many students. (We’ve had evenings this year in which every single seat in the library was taken, and students actually stood around.) Students living on the margins are vulnerable to predators of any number of stripes; one of the cruel truths of our society is that the people with the least to steal are the likeliest to be robbed. Proposals like “make netbooks mandatory” look different when you imagine the netbook as thiefbait in the car in which a student lives.

And, of course, some of these students have kids. I can’t even imagine.

Part of me wants to just open up the gym at night, but the issues there are legion. What about non-students? What about safety within? What, exactly, does the college know about running a homeless shelter? We have a hard enough time just maintaining the basic functions of a college.

In this setting, debates like whether or not to extend tax cuts for millionaires make me stabby. It’s the wrong question entirely. Even addressing it respectfully feels like a lie.

In the meantime, we’ll use a different survey question.

My CC did have a guy who basically lived at it. I think he found an out of the way corner of the gym to curl up at night that never got noticed.
I don't see why your question was insensitive. The short answer for a homeless student is 'no, no internet access.' Simply factual.

It's not unreasonable to assume a home--what's unreasonable, as you say, is that so many do not have homes, but the answer to that has nothing to do with being more sensitive to the hypothetical embarrassment of the homeless student. On the contrary,
shaming the comfortable, if we have any shame left, is the only solution, and some insensitive plain talk might be the beginning of our shame.

So, ask two questions: do you have a home? If so, do you have internet access?
Another way to ask the question is to phrase it as "Do you have access to the internet when you are off-campus?" It doesn't assume a home, and gets at what (I think) you're looking for, which is the degree to which students rely on the internet access provided by the school.
In this setting, debates like whether or not to extend tax cuts for millionaires make me stabby. It’s the wrong question entirely.

Agreed. Spending a few moments considering the situation of a student trying to make (some) ends meet and work his/her way through college while falling asleep in all-night diners and keeping the heat on in the car at night because they lack more permanent shelter makes me want to punch a tax-cut lobbyist in the stomach. Repeatedly.
I teach at an urban CC, in what many consider the most poor section of that city. I am always taken aback when I hear about some of my students' personal lives directly. Just recently, one of my students confessed she was living in a shelter with her year old daughter because she had a falling out with her parents...and then I wonder how I come across to these students, because how can you expect someone to master higher level science when that someone is concerned about finding a temporary place to live? It just seems incongruous.
You might ask them about their level of computer/internet access off campus or ask them what would most help them on campus with specific options to select.
We asked a similar question in our last student opinion survey. It was phrased:

Do you have a computer with internet access available for personal use outside of the college?
"spazeboy" offers an excellent alternative that your uber-sensitive colleagues should consider, and not just for the excellent budget-planning reason you gave. I mean, how many of your classes require computer-based homework? This is becoming the norm in math classes (including developmental math) as well as science classes. Your faculty need to know what access they have.

I'd also recommend framing a question that asks where they usually study. You don't have to be homeless to prefer some location other than a loud apartment. You might want to think outside such out-dated management boxes as "library" and "computer room" and "classroom" that are managed by different VPs. Maybe students are in the library just to get WiFi for their laptop or PDA so they can do math homework in a quiet place.
I hope you ask how often they read college e-mail, and do the survey in a way that does not assume they read e-mail or have a permanent address or computer access at home. Remember the telephone sampling bias that led to Dewey beats Truman!
Notes on libraries in general: As a recent student who has internet access at home, the best thing my campus library did for me was provide access to electronic journals through VPN.

Side note on homeless students in general: the compassionate side of me feels for those students. The responsible part of me who never had children out of wedlock thinks that I have a right to as much of my earned income as possible, and I shouldn't have to pay for others' poor choices. (Although I'm a huge fan of subsidized higher ed. I think everybody should have access to it, and I'm willing to my tax dollars on the line for it.)
Dear Anonymous,

I think the word you're looking for is not so much "responsible" as "self-righteous."


DD, if there's one thing we agree on fully, it's that there is a class war on, and the few are winning against the many.

I don't know what it will take for most Americans to stop hating working people -- even working people themselves -- but it'd be nice if that were so.
And I always love how many people libertarians are happy to watch die in order so that they can feel superior to those who made different choices from them. It's just not a way I can ever look at the world.

You're better off. You always will be. People who make good choices will always do better than people who don't. But nobody wins when the desperate turn to drugs and violence. Then your -- and their -- choices are irrelevant. It's all just chance. You'd think the "deserve" crowd would want to preserve a system in which choices matter more than luck. But it's all about the superiority, no matter how much we all suffer.
The survey should ask people whether they have internet access where they live, period. Being too careful about "offending" people is a problem when it leads to you being less able to help people that you are supposed to be helping. As the homeless won't have internet access where they live, you need to ask this question and include it in the results.

And, FWIW, I think that the people concerned about the survey are a lot more sensitive than the homeless students are; the students who are homeless *are* aware of their homelessness. Being asked about it in an anonymous survey is the least of their problems.

If you take this idea much farther, we won't be able to find out the unemployment rate because it will remind the unemployed that they don't have jobs.
Fascinating dialogue. Good that the level of awareness about homelessness is rising because the numbers of kids, parents and single adults of all stripes is soaring.

Check our website, and watch the 3 minute trailer of "on the edge," our new documentary. Lots of other worthwhile resources...

Thanks for caring. Keep expanding your heart's compassion. It's the only thing that will really help.
This reminds me of discussions we had in the early 90s about setting up a campus food bank. Now every campus I know has a food bank and most of them are assisting students with housing as well. Class war indeed.
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