By Jim Miller
Over the more than two decades I have spent teaching at the college level, the vast majority of that time at San Diego City College, I have seen a little bit of everything. From the homeless student sleeping in Balboa Park who ended up at USC to the single mother living in her car with her kids who still got every assignment in on time before transferring to SDSU, there have been far too many stories of triumphs against all odds for me to recount.
Along with those stories come sadder tales like the cab driver supporting his family who almost finished but got knocked out of the game by an unexpected financial challenge or the lost kid who, even though you tried to reach out, lost the battle to despair and commits suicide. When you work at a community college it humbles you quickly. No matter how well you teach, how hard you try, you soon realize that there are so many things out of your control, and that, despite your best efforts, you just can’t help everyone.
But you try because you love them. You love them because even though they have plenty of reasons to make excuses, most of them don’t ask for anything. Like the student who apologized for the quality of a paper because she was distracted since someone had murdered her brother last week or the veteran dealing with PTSD who missed a test but didn’t want any special treatment. If you really get to know your students, you inevitably learn from them and come to see how many working class people suffering the hard edge of life in our increasingly unforgiving times do so with dignity and grace.
After many years of having the privilege of serving this community, I didn’t need any research to learn how much economic and other hardship my students endure. But for those outside of my world, there is now some data that tells the story.
In what the authors call “the largest survey ever conducted” of community college students, Hungry and Homeless: Results From a National Study of Basic Needs Insecurity in Higher Education, Sarah Goldrick-Rab, Jeb Richardson, and Anthony Hernandez note that “Food and housing insecurity among the nation’s community college students threatens their health and well-being, along with their academic achievements. Addressing these basic needs is critical to ensuring that more students not only start college but also have the opportunity to complete degrees.”
And just as we have watched our historic level of economic inequality across the entire economy continue to rise, things have gotten worse for community college students. As the authors state, “Our 2015 report indicated that about half of community college students were food insecure, but this study found that two in three students are food insecure. Both surveys revealed that about half of community college students were housing insecure, and 13 to 14 percent were homeless.” They go on to note that this general trend is “prevalent in all regions of the country.”
In an NPR story on this report, one of the researchers makes the centrally important point that this is not about students lacking the work ethic needed to put themselves through school, but rather a failure on the part of our institutions to provide the support students need:
Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociologist who led the research team, says it’s not just that college students need to work while in school. “It’s that they’re working, and borrowing,” she says, “and sometimes still falling so short that they’re going without having their basic needs met.”
Goldrick-Rab says she believes state and federal governments should work together to help college students find a place to live and something to eat so that they’re ready to learn and, eventually, graduate.
Consequently, the report concludes that more rather than less government involvement is necessary:
The data presented in this report largely confirm evidence from prior studies, underscoring the need for improvements in policy and practice to support the basic needs security of all undergraduates. Investments in food and housing assistance programs to help community college students complete degrees will yield dividends, helping individuals improve their employment prospects and reducing their need for future support. Such strategies must become priorities of leaders in higher education.
Given our present political circumstances and the general trend toward draconian corporate education reform rhetoric about better business models, “student learning outcomes,” privatization, and a host of other trendy claptrap being pushed by neoliberals and Betty DeVos alike, it’s not hard to imagine that these findings will be dismissed by some as an “excuse” for the failure of our education system.
But if there is one thing my years of teaching at the community college level has shown me it’s that my students don’t need any more market solutions or tough love. They need a solid dose of social justice.