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How Policymakers Can Help Institutions Support Financially Insecure Students

Editor’s note: We asked Rachel Dykstra Boon, a panelist for our Higher Ed Insights Survey, to contribute this blog post based on her open-ended comments on the 2017 survey.

Ask any teacher (pre-school through graduate school) for an example of a student with food, housing or financial struggles affecting the learning experience and heart-breaking stories will follow. Quantitative and qualitative research over the past several years has pointed to the growth in this demographic of college students as the country moved through a recession and into an economic reality where “getting ahead” carries a post-secondary training imperative.

The growing body of research and commentary on this topic has brought it to the attention of mainstream media outlets (see this example). College administrators, sometimes with the prodding of student leaders, have responded by dedicating space to food pantries, creating bookstore credits to obtain course materials before aid is available, and many other efforts that address the short-term needs of students. Unfortunately, systemic solutions that catch all students in need are difficult. Studies suggest that in some places as many as 50 percent of community college students and up to 20 percent of university students are food insecure or at risk of becoming so.

I am an optimist, so I want to believe that enlightened administrators can find the solutions that systematically lift students in need to a sufficient level of security that learning is no longer inhibited. However, I know as an administrator that this is easier said than done. First, reaching these students is no easy task. The stigma of asking for help pervades, and getting the message out that help is available is an equal challenge. Faculty members might not always be well equipped with answers. The teacher-student power dynamic can amplify apprehensions about asking for help. The hurdles add up.

Academic advisors and student affairs staff have helpful information at their fingertips, but they often lack guaranteed access to all students. Mandatory orientation at the start of a term provides access, but can be overwhelming. When important information on classes, books, financial aid, tutoring, and student life opportunities is distributed, how much mental space is left for information on resources a student may or may not even need? It is easy for this to be lost in the shuffle, and when an emergency strikes later (e.g. their car breaks down, they lose their job, illness), it is even easier for students to give up rather than start looking for help they don’t know is there.

Policy-makers can help. When support resources are easily accessible, institutions can be more proactive in getting them in front of students.

Policy-makers can help. When support resources are easily accessible, institutions can be more proactive in getting them in front of students. For example, state funds can be allocated for emergency aid to supplement the small amounts institutions are currently committing; ensuring students in need will always have a place to turn. The “last dollar” requirement can be removed from need-based aid programs to allow for refunds that students could then use to pay rent, electricity or grocery bills. When satisfactory academic progress is required for access to federal aid, allowances can be put in place for students who must withdraw from classes mid-term in order to meet their basic financial, child care, or health obligations. Additionally, states can ensure college students have access to federal SNAP E&T funds (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Employment & Training program).

More creatively, the California legislature is considering a bill that allows students to donate unused meals from their meal plans to other students or to food pantries. This is an idea born from students, enabled by committed administrators, and hopefully brought to scale by concerned lawmakers.

Thanks to the researchers who are highlighting the severity of these issues, we know much more about the depth and breadth of this issue. Without their good work, we have faculty and staff with anecdotes and little capacity to get the attention of administrators and policy-makers. Now that people are listening, we must find compassionate approaches to communicating with and serving students who want to earn a credential that puts them on a long-term path to financial security and independence. Now we just need the courage, creativity, and resources to make these changes a reality. And why not draw motivation from the current Hunger and Homelessness Awareness week and start now?

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