Food, Housing and Childcare: Colleges Addressing Basic Needs Are...


Food, Housing and Childcare: Colleges Addressing Basic Needs Are Boosting Success

By Sydney Johnson     Feb 21, 2019

Food, Housing and Childcare: Colleges Addressing Basic Needs Are Boosting Success
From left to right: Karen Stout, Sara Goldrick-Rab, Russell Lowery-Hart, Cheryl Crazy Bull, Mei-Yen Ireland

Long Beach, CA—Improving students success won’t hinge on shiny new gadgets or high-tech early alert systems based on AI or big data. Increasingly, colleges are deciding to focus on addressing the root causes that can lead students to struggle in the first place.

That was a major through line at this week’s DREAM conference here. Hosted by nonprofit Achieving the Dream, the event brought together community college leaders from 48 states to share what has worked and lessons learned from failed efforts as they’ve worked to support diverse and changing student populations.

At a morning panel on Thursday, Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education Policy at Temple University, started the conversation by providing some context and statistics from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which she founded. A 2017 study from the lab found that nearly two thirds of community college students are food insecure. About half of community college students are housing insecure and about 14 percent are homeless.

But not everyone in higher ed buys these numbers, she said. “There are still some who doubt.” One challenge is there’s no federal data to back up these trends. “We need national representative data, and we don’t have it.”

One college that has started to survey its students on these issues is Amarillo College, in Texas. The school worked with Goldrick-Rab and the HOPE Lab to poll its students to ask what they needed to be successful. The top 10 reasons students said they had trouble in the classroom had little to do with academics. Instead, students listed issues around finding housing, transportation, utilities, childcare and legal services.

In the past six years, Amarillo College opened a legal aid clinic, a childcare center, a counseling center and an Advocacy and Resource Center, a hub for the school’s food pantry where students can also get connected to social services provided by local nonprofits.

“I was thinking we needed more tutoring, which we do, but I was changed because our students told us profoundly that their lives outside the classroom were affecting what’s happening inside the classroom,” Amarillo College president Russell Lowery-Hart said during the panel on Thursday.

Since implementing the new services, the three-year graduation rate at Amarillo College has increased from 13 percent to 22 percent. Cara Crowley, vice president of strategic initiatives at Amarillo, told EdSurge the school has earned $16 for every $1 it invests in these programs as a result.

Some audience questions during the panel revealed that not everyone is on board with offering wrap-around supports. For instance, one attendee said: “Community colleges are not social service organizations. It is not the role of community colleges to provide non-academic supports for students who attend.”

Lowery-Hart said he “didn’t come to my position and my experience in higher education to be an advocate in engaging in the war zone on poverty.” Still, he added, seeing the survey results about students at Amarillo College changed his opinion about what is necessary for students to succeed. “You can’t ignore what’s happening outside your college walls if you want to change what’s happening inside your college walls,” he said.

Mei-Yen Ireland, executive director of holistic student supports at Achieving the Dream, later encouraged college leaders at the event to think about student success barriers not just in terms of poverty, but as symptoms of larger causes. “Underlying it is structural racism,” he said. “We have to be calling that out and educating on that.”

One group of colleges who have long wrestled with the impacts of structural racism are tribal colleges. “What’s unique about tribal colleges and universities is that most of them are located in rural communities as a result of U.S. policy and practice,” said Cheryl Crazy Bull (Sicangu Lakota), president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund. “In their beginning, these had to be aware that they were dealing with a community that already had insufficient housing and were in food desserts.”

As the conversation moved towards solutions and how to move forward, Ireland suggested that it’s not simply about creating new student services centers on campus. “That is a part of it,” she said, “but it’s this very deep culture change that is really important for this work to take root.”

Lowery-Hart added: “We tell students you should work harder or pull yourself up from your bootstraps, as if we didn’t have people who helped us get to this point in our lives,” he said. “Our students understand the real world. They should be teaching us. We are so often shielded from it.”

Goldrick-Rab told colleges to “think beyond financial aid.” She pointed to successful initiatives where colleges have worked to give students the supports they need directly, and to connect them with social workers and nonprofits who can help. She also urged college leaders to seek out learning opportunities to better understand the challenges faced by today’s students.

Crazy Bull, of the American Indian College Fund, stressed the importance of financial investment to historically underserved students and communities. “To overcome structural racism and give people the resources they need for food and shelter, there needs to be much greater public and private investment. You can’t expect people to work beyond what they are capable of if there are no resources to support that.”

Learn more about EdSurge operations, ethics and policies here. Learn more about EdSurge supporters here.

More from EdSurge

Get our email newsletterSign me up
Keep up to date with our email newsletterSign me up