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It’s not the objections I anticipate that give me trouble. It’s the ones I never see coming.

As part of the local Academic Master Plan, we’re looking at systematically addressing student basic needs. That entails looking at the material preconditions to enable students to pay attention to their studies: food, transportation, and the like. The idea is twofold. Morally, enabling students to study is the right thing to do. Pragmatically, getting some material obstacles out of students’ way will likely pay off in improved retention and completion numbers. It’s the rare chance to do well by doing good.

I anticipated certain objections, mostly along practical lines. The logistics of a meaningful intervention are not trivial. We’d have to identify spaces, funding streams, and personnel.  Those strike me as reasonable caveats, but not as deal-breakers.

The one I didn’t anticipate, but probably should have, was that addressing basic needs amounts to mission creep.  The argument goes like this: we have limited resources, there’s potentially unlimited need, and other charities and agencies already exist.  Shouldn’t we focus on teaching well, and leave those other issues to other people?

The problem with that objection, to my mind, is that it assumes a much more reasonable world than the world in which we live.  If every student were securely housed, well-fed, and able to devote herself entirely to study, then the objection would be correct.  Alternately, if the existing external safety net programs were sufficient to meet the need that exists, then it could make sense to leave that task to them. 

But that’s not our world. 

It’s hard to focus on, say, microbiology when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from. It’s hard, too, when you’re working forty hours a week for pay just to keep the lights on. That difficulty makes it hard to get the training to get the job that lifts you out of poverty.  Even if you have drive and talent, you still need to eat.

I understand the objection from mission creep.  It’s true that what counts as basic needs can be debated.  We don’t have dorms. And resources are clearly finite. But if we’re going to fulfill the mission of providing opportunity -- and more cynically, if we’re going to be held to account for graduation rates -- it’s self-defeating to pretend that material circumstances don’t matter.

At a deeper level, I wonder if concern about “mission creep” comes from a more Calvinist assumption about college as separating the worthy from the unworthy.  “Handouts” violate a cultural norm because they include the “unworthy.” Good grades accrue to the “worthy.” If we make it “too easy,” then some of the “unworthy” will slide through, and we’ll debase the currency. That’s the argument that some prep schools are making against AP exams; now that just anybody can take them, well, just anybody can take them.

To the extent that we’re shadow-boxing around Calvinist cultural default settings -- don’t try metaphors like this at home, kids, I’m a trained professional -- it’s hard to make progress.  In shadow boxing, you can land what looks like a haymaker, yet your opponent still stands. That’s because you haven’t actually made contact with what’s making the shadow. To the extent that we, as a culture, define poverty as a character flaw -- often without even knowing that we’re doing it -- we’ll get twitchy about identifying material obstacles to education.  Part of what makes the work of public higher education both noble and really, really difficult is that it draws on underlying assumptions that conflict with each other.

I’ll cut myself some slack for not having sussed out unconscious Calvinism when I innocently suggested that feeding students might be a good idea.  Unconscious ideas can sneak up on you; you don’t really see them until you violate them. But that makes them particularly hard to battle.

Wise and worldly readers, have you seen an effective on-the-ground way to defuse the assumption that poverty is a character flaw?

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