• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Basic Needs at a Distance

Old needs, new world.

June 22, 2020

If you haven’t yet seen the Hope Center’s report “Parenting While in College,” by Sara Goldrick-Rab, Carrie Welton and Vanessa Coca, check it out. It’s a clear, and sometimes surprising, summary of survey findings about students with children and the challenges they face in getting some basic needs met. It stands on its own, and I strongly recommend it.

It’s full of useful context. For instance, I wasn’t surprised to see that parenting students are much more heavily represented at two-year colleges than four-year colleges. I was shocked at the percentages of parenting students here who face basic needs issues. According to the report, 69 percent of parenting students at community colleges report housing insecurity in the previous year, and 54 percent report food insecurity. I had to read those twice to make sure I got them right. But it fits what I’ve seen elsewhere. A couple of years ago, I attended a basic needs conference at Rutgers (and actually appeared on a panel with Goldrick-Rab) where someone who runs a pantry at one of the Rutgers campuses reported that the item that flies off the shelves at the pantry faster than anything else is infant formula.

That hit me. It’s one of those signs that something has gone horribly wrong.

That said, the report is based on data from 2019, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit here. The issues at hand have changed in meaningful ways since the survey was done.

The needs are still there, of course; if anything, they’re probably more pronounced. Most students with basic needs shortfalls work for pay, often quite a few hours per week. The income from those jobs helps them get by. With the unemployment rate having abruptly tripled, with an especially heavy hit on restaurants and low-end retail, many of those jobs have evaporated, whether permanently or temporarily. Unemployment insurance is helpful for those who can receive it, but it only covers certain kinds of work. And even for those it does cover, the $600/week bump it recently received expires at the end of July unless Congress acts again.

The housing market sort of froze. Evictions slowed way down, but new availability slowed way down, too. It was especially pronounced in the first month or so, when the “stay at home” restrictions were the tightest. So those who were in a pretty good situation were probably better able to keep it, but those who were locked out were locked out. With children, that would be terrible. And the shelters that exist weren’t really built for social distancing.

As far as the academic side goes, the news is mixed. With so much more being done online, transportation actually became less of an issue. In areas like my own, where the public transportation options are few and far between, that’s a plus. But home internet access became much more of an issue. We were able to offer loaner laptops, which helped, but even those are useful only when the broadband is good. And in some households, there are far more prospective laptop users at any given time than there are laptops to go around. Especially with remote live classes, that can be a problem.

The campus food pantry is closed while the campus is closed. We were able to get the perishables to the local food bank, so they didn’t go to waste. (Strikingly, the Hope Center report notes that most students who identify as facing food insecurity don’t use campus food pantries, even when they’re open.) Our foundation has been able to redirect its fundraising from the usual gala for scholarships to a more direct appeal for aid to students to get through the shutdown, so at least some students will be able to receive actual financial help. Sometimes the best way to help people who are desperately short on money is to give them money. It has been known to work.

The report notes, and a survey on our own campus also found, that depression and anxiety are more common among students than one might expect. Addressing those issues at a distance is a challenge of its own.

Not all is lost. We found that about 40 percent fewer students dropped classes in the stretch from mid-March through late April than had the previous year during that same stretch. In a perverse way, the lack of other things to do may have helped. I don’t know if that’s equally true for parenting students, though, given that they suddenly had to homeschool their kids while also doing their own classes. Students without children may have had much more time to study, but I wouldn’t be surprised if students with young children lost that much time, and more, taking care of their kids.

Basic needs don’t necessarily change, but the context in which they’re expressed does. The report is excellent, dispiriting, surprising and worthwhile, but it has to be read with an awareness of just how much has changed in a few months. There’s entirely new work to be done. The students are worth it.

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Matt Reed

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