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I’ll admit that I started reading “Mission Critical,” the new Community College Survey of Student Engagement report about unmet basic needs among community college students, thinking I knew what to expect. Much of what I expected to find was there: students struggling with food, safe/reliable shelter and paying for utilities. Some colleges are doing good work in trying to meet some of those needs, the better to allow students to succeed. It’s a necessary story, though at this point an unsurprising one.

Until I got to the surprise. Which, in retrospect, it shouldn’t have been.

The report found that students with the greatest material insecurities are often the most engaged on campus.

I had to pause and reread that to make sure I got it right. But there it was.

Reflecting on the students I’ve known who were struggling, though, I could see why.

If you’re desperate enough to skip meals for lack of money, there may not be many places in your daily world in which you’re treated with respect. If you’re couch surfing, you’re probably very aware of the space you’re taking up. (It may be worse; I still wince when I remember the young woman who said she “chose abuse” over homelessness.) If you’re on the streets, you have to deal with all manner of indignities, ranging from weather to law enforcement to inconsistent bathroom access. If you’re missing meals due to money, you’re painfully aware that you’re missing them; miss enough of them over time, and larger health issues may start to develop.

There aren’t many places that are welcoming to people without money. Community colleges and public libraries are among the few exceptions.

At college, a student who’s otherwise in a bad spot can blend in with everyone else. They can attract positive attention through academic engagement and/or student clubs. Often, they can get food. If they have time in which they aren’t working for pay, they can find places (such as the library) where they can stay for hours without anybody bothering them. They can find professionals, whether faculty or staff, who can help them. And if they’re able to stick with a program, they can improve the chances of getting the kind of job that can get them out of their bad spot.

When the world is cold, you go where it’s warm.

Neither colleges nor libraries were built for that, of course, but public spaces devoted to cultivating people’s higher aspirations and sense of community don’t have to stretch as much as, say, a mall would. And it’s hard for people to do their best, most focused work when they’re hungry.

Of course, the real solution to student desperation is in an economy that doesn’t price out young people who are just starting out. Better low-end wages and cheaper rent would work wonders. Havens in a heartless world serve a purpose, but ultimately the real issue is the heartless world.

Still, kudos to the CCSSE for connecting some dots that aren’t usually connected. Knowing that the students who need college the most also cling to it the hardest might help dispel some unhelpful myths—and possibly open minds toward meeting students where they are.

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