Sunday, December 06, 2015

First Things First

I had been planning on devoting today’s post to a wrap-up of the Middle States conference, but this piece that appeared in the New York Times really called out for amplification.

Sara Goldrick-Rab and Katharine Broton shared the results of a survey done with the cooperation of ACCT and Single Stop America, looking at economic precarity among community college students.  To their credit, Goldrick-Rab and Broton didn’t just look at “poverty” or “homelessness,” either of which can lead to endless methodological or definitional quibbling.  They looked instead at precarity.  That means noticing not only the student on the street, but the student who’s couch-surfing with friends or acquaintances, or the student who has to skip meals to save money.

It’s an urgent issue, made more urgent as the weather gets colder.  

Economic precarity takes a different cast at a commuter college than at a residential one.  (Yes, some community colleges have dorms, but even now the normative community college student is a commuter.)  In a residential college, dorms and dining halls are in place, and the dining halls often have meal plans.  Consideration for homeless students might mean keeping the dorms open during vacations.  But at a commuter college, cafeterias tend to have shorter hours and be a la carte, and dorms don’t exist.  It’s harder to get a handle on the situation.

Making matters worse, the more transient population at a commuter college makes it harder to form the thick support networks that can come in handy in a crisis.  

Discussions of issues like graduation rates look different in the light of student economic precarity.  When a student has to sleep in her car, how realistic or responsible is it to expect her to pay three hundred dollars for a textbook?  The move towards Open Educational Resources takes on a moral cast when you realize just what’s at stake for many students.  Those three hundred dollars could be the difference in paying this month’s rent.

The Great Recession took a long-developing trend and intensified it.  The recovery has helped a bit, but the underlying forces driving precarity are still very much in place: stagnant hourly wages on the bottom, rampant wage theft on the bottom, rapidly increasing tuition, and overall economic polarization.  A post-high-school credential is more necessary than ever to get ahead, but also harder to get.  Yes, effort matters, choices matter, and some people succeed despite the odds.  That’s all true.  But the margin of error is so thin at this point that it doesn’t take much to throw many people into a tailspin.  They just don’t have a cushion.  Expecting people to be superheroes is not a realistic policy.

People who’ve never had to live on the margins may not understand how tightly bound many issues are.  Maybe you stay in an abusive relationship because the alternative is homelessness.  Maybe you skip too many classes for work because the alternative is going hungry, or losing the job that keeps you fed.  Poorer people drive older cars that are more prone to breakdowns; to an employer or professor, someone with an unreliable car may look like an unreliable person.  Relying on informal and precarious childcare makes it that much tougher; there’s no fallback option if any link in the chain breaks.  As James Baldwin noted, being poor is expensive.  You have to pay for it over and over again, often in ways that other people don’t even see.

Broadly, the best answer to student precarity is a more robust and level economy, combined with a reversal in the trend of cost-shifting towards students.  But in the short term, any number of other measures can help.  OER can cut student costs.  Free tuition would help even more.  On-campus food pantries can make a difference, as could some sort of “free or reduced price lunch” program for college students.  I’m a fan of “career closets,” which offer job-interview clothes to folks who can’t afford them.  Some campuses even have people on staff whose job it is to help connect students to the existing social services for which they’re eligible.  “Prior prior” year financial aid rules will help, since getting timely tax information for financial aid can be a barrier.  In areas where public transportation has a meaningful presence, bus or subway passes can help with the unreliable transportation issue.  I’d love to see scholarships for “unpaid” internships become more common, so students who couldn’t afford to work for free could compete fairly with their more affluent peers.  And speeding up pathways to completion can help students get the jobs that will stabilize their lives sooner.  

The key step, for which I commend Goldrick-Rab and Broton, is getting past the stereotype of the “coddled” student.  In the community college world, most students aren’t coddled; many are dangerously close to economic disaster.  It’s hard to focus on homework and exams when you need to find a warm place to sleep that night.  Maslow’s hierarchy of needs isn’t perfect, but it gets at something basic and true; if you’re hungry, you aren’t doing your best work.

As a society, we could choose to fix this.  If we need an educated workforce -- and we do -- then we need to make sure that students are in a position to learn.  FIrst things first.  Thank you, Sara Goldrick-Rab and Katharine Broton, for calling attention to reality.  Now it’s up to us, all of us, to change it.