Monday, January 29, 2018

Dispatches from a Student Basic Needs Conference

On Monday I was able to participate in the “Basic Needs Insecurity in New Jersey Higher Education” conference at Rutgers.  Kerri Willson hosted, and the indefatigable Sara Goldrick-Rab was the headliner.  It focused largely on four-year schools with dorms, but a few of us community college folk were there, too.  

The idea behind the conference seemed to be a sort of information sharing across schools, with the goal of getting a better grip on a large and apparently growing issue.  I took some notes on the afternoon session:

  • A Rutgers student let it be known, loudly, that students who are parents have particular needs that often go unaddressed in discussions of student hunger. She pointed out that on-campus housing for parents of young children is often limited, that childcare is expensive and hard to find, and that taking the unattached 18 year old as the assumed model of students leads to ongoing issues.

  • Someone who runs a food pantry on a campus mentioned two major areas of need that often go unaddressed: toiletries (and particularly feminine hygiene products) and infant formula.  SNAP benefits can be used for food, but not for toiletries, and formula is hellaciously expensive. Making some of each available would make the lives of student parents much easier.  

  • One residential university does an on-campus food drive by giving students ten dollars off their parking fines for bringing in canned food.  This one struck me as brilliant.  Apparently, it was a rip-roaring success.

  • At colleges with dorms, Christmas break is a real issue for students without stable housing. Some of them offer the option of staying over break; more probably should. (I recall Williams keeping one dorm open during Spring Break for folks who couldn’t afford to leave. I stayed there one year, and functioned as a plant-sitter for several friends.)

  • Princeton has about 8,000 students, and an endowment of over $20 billion.  Brookdale has over 12,000 students, and reserves of under $1 million.  Note the units.  And Princeton gets a larger work-study allocation than Brookdale does, thanks to the “frozen in time” allocation set in the 1970’s.  

  • Austerity rolls downhill. It’s hard for many community colleges to subsidize food on campus because they’ve outsourced their food service, so it has to make a profit. The same is true of bookstores and childcare centers. Pressures to “run it like a business” make it more difficult to cut slack for students who are really struggling economically.

  • NASPA apparently has compiled a report on best practices in emergency aid.  I’m going to have to look that one up.  Brookdale briefly had an emergency aid program for students in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, but it faded away. It may be worth taking a fresh look.

  • As with many political issues, there was a tension between “we need more data” and “anecdotes open wallets.”  They aren’t contradictory, but most people tend to lean to one side or the other.  

  • At some schools, the food pantry isn’t wheelchair accessible.  

  • A serious discussion of student basic needs easily becomes a discussion of much larger issues, such as the minimum wage, “flexible” hours at low-wage jobs, weird financial aid rules, DACA, the politics of public transportation, internal college politics, and relationships with Boards.  As someone put it at the #RealCollege conference last Fall, “we aren’t going to food-pantry our way out of this.”  

But at least we’re starting.  As grim as the subject matter was, I was glad to see a good-faith effort to do something about it.  Kudos to Kerri Willson and Sara Goldrick-Rab for nudging us again to do things we should have been doing for years.