Tuesday, August 29, 2017

No Soup For You!

This week I had one of those moments in a meeting when I could feel my brain stop.

Several of us from the college were meeting with a few folks from a local high school with whom we have an Early College High School arrangement.  The program allows high school students to take college classes for dual credit; if they pass everything on the first try, they can graduate with an Associate’s degree at the same time they graduate high school.  It’s a way to short-circuit the “you’re not college material” message that some kids get in our culture, and to do it at minimal cost.  We already have some four-year colleges expressing strong interest in enrolling the graduates as transfer students.

The meeting was moving along nicely as we discussed curriculum, space, and timing.  The model we’re using involves starting out with classes in the high school, but once students get some credits under their belt, they move to the college campus.  It’s a phasing-in process that allows students to build some momentum in familiar environs before jumping in the deep end.  So far, the results have been encouraging.

Until we hit the unanticipated topic that stopped me cold: lunch.

Many of the students in the program qualify for free or reduced price lunch.  When they’re on the high school campus, the school has mechanisms for that.  It has built its cafeteria policies and practices around that.  The school knows what to do, and has legal permission to do it.

But apparently, the free and reduced price lunch money isn’t portable.  If the students are taking classes on the college campus, they can’t apply that money at the cafeteria here.  They can take classes here, but they can’t get food here.  

No soup for them.

Drawing on the work of Sara Goldrick-Rab, I’ve suggested before that it would be beneficial to extend some version of the free lunch program to community colleges.  But I didn’t realize that even current beneficiaries of the program can’t apply the benefit here.  

It could be simple enough.  Most colleges, including my own, have student ID cards on which students can load money to be spent on campus.  If the free lunch allocation were converted to that, the students could use their ID’s at the cafeteria, just like everyone else.  They could get hot or cold food, and nobody but them would know from whence the money came.  I’m pretty certain that we could find technology to ensure that the daily money expires at the end of the day, if that’s a deal-breaker.

We know that hungry students don’t perform as well academically as fed students.  We know that dual enrollment and early college programs provide real academic benefit, particularly for low-income students.  And we pay for lunches for low-income students in high schools.

So why can’t we apply those same dollars to cover lunches for low-income students here?  

The argument from basic human decency is obvious.  Basic human decency aside, the bang for the buck for something like this could be enormous.  In practice, any workarounds will be far more expensive and cumbersome, and far less satisfying, than the simple fix of letting students eat in the cafeteria with everyone else.  

WIse and worldly readers on campuses with longstanding dual enrollment programs: do you know how your school handles lunch?  There has to be a reasonable way...