Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Blind Spots and “Beer Money”

Several years ago I was part of a conversation with a professor about the college’s budget.  Predictably, the budget was tighter than any of us would have liked.  He put forth an impressive wish list, which he suggested funding with a double-digit tuition increase.  When I balked at the size of the increase, he responded that “it’s just beer money” and the students could easily afford it.

He didn’t get the increase he wanted, but the comment stuck with me.

Based on what I know of him, I don’t think he was malicious.  He actually thought he was right.  And there are some students for whom he was right.  But for the ones about whom he was wrong, he was terribly wrong.  The blind spot could have had serious consequences.

I was reminded of that in reading the latest paper from Katharine Broton and Sara Goldrick-Rab, “Going Without.”  It’s based on multiple surveys of tens of thousands of students at two year and four year colleges.  Among its findings are that at least a third of community college students are “housing insecure,” including 14 percent who are homeless.

That’s bad enough, but it gets really shocking when Broton and Goldrick-Rab disaggregate the numbers.  On Table 5, they indicate that over 57 percent of the students coded as “homeless” are working, and they’re working an average of just over 31 hours per week.

That was a jaw-dropper for me.  Students who are working for pay over 30 hours a week are homeless.  If you take the unemployment rate as your primary economic indicator, you’ll miss that.  Anyone who’s working 30 hours per week and going to college can’t be accused of slacking.  That’s not the core issue.  The core is a pincer movement in which wages have stayed low while housing costs, textbook costs, and, yes, tuition, have increased.  

Among the four surveys they examined, anywhere from 21 to over 36 percent answered “yes” to “Were you ever hungry but did not eat because there was not enough money for food?”  

This isn’t a matter of beer money.  It’s a matter of basic survival.

Yet the gaps we force students to straddle largely fall into the blind spots of policymakers.  Part of that is because of the average age of policymakers, as opposed to students.  Part of it is that most policymakers attended four-year colleges, often well-funded ones, and had no direct experience of serious hunger or finding a place to sleep at night.  In their own experience, “it’s just beer money” may have been true.  Broton and Goldrick-Rab note that hunger and homelessness are far more common at community colleges than at four-year colleges.  (What that says about the appropriateness of measuring the performance of the two sectors by the same metrics, I’ll leave as an exercise for the reader.)

One quibble: Broton and Goldrick-Rab claim, in passing, that “[c]ommunity colleges rarely provide on-campus housing…”  That’s less true than it used to be; according to Walter Bumphus’ talk at Middle States last week, nationally, 27% of community colleges offer on-campus housing.  The number is higher than I expected, and climbing.  It varies dramatically by state and region; for example, it’s commonplace in New York but nearly absent in New Jersey.  In places where it exists, it may provide one option for housing-insecure students.  But even allowing for a growth of on-campus housing in this sector, the numbers of students struggling for a safe place to sleep are staggering.

Sustainable solutions will probably require concerted efforts across sectors.  I’ve read about some community colleges designating people on campus whose job it is to connect students in need to available social services in the area, which strikes me as a fantastic idea.  Emergency funds, often from college foundations, can make the difference between a student staying housed and getting evicted, or between staying in an abusive situation for the sake of shelter and finding someplace safe.  Even something as straightforward as Open Educational Resources (OER) instead of expensive textbooks can free up money for food, shelter, and transportation.  That’s well within our power, as a sector.  If the same Pell grant has more left over because a school has moved to OER and the student doesn’t have to buy books, those dollars become available for basic needs.

Larger changes require politics.  Disinvestment in public higher education is a political choice.  Upward distribution of wealth is a political choice.  So are exclusionary zoning, financial aid rules based on the assumption that a student is 18 and full-time, and the minimum wage.  No college or set of colleges can undo all of that alone.

But a tip of the cap to Broton and Goldrick-Rab for doing the shoe-leather epidemiology that may help us actually start to get a handle on this.  No student who works 30 hours a week and takes college classes should be homeless.  If we could stop thinking about aid as subsidized beer money, we might actually make some headway.