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.