Student affairs / student services

A higher ed reform? 45 million peanut butter sandwiches (essay)

To: President Barack H. Obama
Subject: Missing from Your College Plan: 45 Million Peanut Butter Sandwiches. Per Week.

Forty-five million peanut butter sandwiches a week?

This 45 million idea came to me the other day, at a sink. I was washing peanut butter from the wooden paddle hungry students use every day to make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at the Boston community college where I work. Bread donated via Panera and the Minute Man High School Parents Association. PB&J bought with donor funds. 

Why not, I thought, one peanut butter sandwich per school day for each of the nine million students (source) on a Pell Grant? How many of these are the same students who were eligible for free and reduced lunch in high school? No one knows and no one is counting. How many are from households on food stamps? No one’s asking, either. 

Why not, then, 45 million peanut butter sandwiches at colleges each week? Until we come up with a better idea.

In your proposed evaluations and rankings of colleges, where’s hunger? Or poverty? Is hunger an obstacle to college completion?

We don’t know. Hot lunches are better, but let’s start simple. Just give the nine million on Pell Grants a peanut butter sandwich at school every day. 

Most? Many of these students, Mr. President, received federal free and reduced lunch in high school, didn’t they? Why? Because their families cannot afford enough food for the family. Why have we, the people, snatched lunch from these low-income students going on to college?

“Why?” Students are arriving on college campuses without having eaten that day.  Or even the day before.

Where? My office and others at Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts (12 electoral votes). I have credible reports of college hunger in Wisconsin (10 electoral votes), Florida (27 EVs), New York (31 EVs), California (55 EVs), Louisiana (9 EVs), New Jersey (15 EVs), and New Mexico (5 EVs).

Peanut butter? Let’s take a page, a few tablespoons from public health and acute hunger. Public health has long known of the astonishing effects from this simple dose of peanut butter, plumpy’nut, nourimandba.

My late discovery, the peanut butter solution, beyond that sink, arrived in the new book, To Repair the World, by the public health leader Paul Farmer. Listen: “One remedy for acute malnutrition is known as ready-to-use therapeutic food – RUTF for short. Colleagues from Medicins Sans Frontieres showed in Niger that a miraculous and tasty peanut paste could save the lives of most children with moderate and acute malnutrition.” Click here for more on RUTF. (Yes, sounds like, but not the same as, the AUMF that has been dogging you so, Mr. President.)

Acute malnutrition? In the U.S.? In colleges? Quibble over semantics as you wish, Mr. President. I’m talking about, say, the mother of two who showed up in my office late one afternoon this summer. She told me she and her children had had nothing to eat that day. Or the day before.

Exaggeration? Let’s compare these two statements, one from U.S. public higher education, one from global public health.

  1. Listen: To President Madeline Pumariega of the Miami Dade College (total seven-campus enrollment 175,000) Wolfson campus: “When a student is hungry, he does not feel safe, and it is hard to help him synthesize class material. We have to meet students’ basic needs in order for them to fully concentrate on assimilating the information in a class in a way that they can apply it, learn, and take it forward.”  That’s in a report: Clearing the Path to a Brighter Future: Addressing Barriers to College Access and Success, published this summer by Single Stop USA and the Association of Community College Trustees, authored by Sara Goldrick-Rab, Katherine Broton, and Christin Gates of the University of Wisconsin.
  1. Listen:  To Medicins sans Frontieres, from the Farmer book: “An example:  one of the lessons we’ve learned since the early days is that it’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to treat patients who don’t get enough food to eat.”  (Emphasis added.) 

Mr. President, let’s connect some dots. 

Wouldn’t the same go if we rephrased: “It’s difficult, sometimes impossible, to educate students who don’t get enough to eat.”

Another dot:  Don’t the same students eligible for federal free and reduced lunch through high school need lunch at college, too? 

I mean even me, a sometime English professor and an obscure columnist, can see the overlap across Pell Grants, free and reduced K-12 lunch, and food stamps. Aren’t all these programs synonyms for poverty for many of the same people?

Any critics? “But if people are on food stamps, then they aren’t hungry, right?” A knuckleheaded Hill staffer, happy to tell me which prep school he had attended, said this to me last spring. Reply: Food stamps seldom last the whole month. Hummus can counter peanut butter allergies. 


Listen: To the national anti-poverty NGO Single Stop USA. “So far Single Stop has sites on 17 community college campuses across the country. In 2012, Single Stop USA and its community college partners helped over 2,300 students nationwide access more than $6 million in food stamps.  Roughly half of the people who received a public benefit through Single Stop in 2012 received food stamps. These numbers help illustrate how widespread the issue of hunger and poverty is on community college campuses.”

Listen: To Sadhana Dharmapuri, M.D., Medical College of Wisconsin, Adolescent Medicine: "Food insecurity and its complex effect on the individual, such as, increase in psychological stress, the physiological changes due to starvation, as well as, other financial hardship due to lack of food is not clearly defined for individuals pursuing a post-secondary education. Although there is data identifying the association of starvation with cognitive functioning, little is known how these changes affect college retention and completion rates, and whether lack of food and/or access to food, has a long term effect on potential learning, earning, and health outcomes.” 

Listen: To the April 2011 Study Food Insecurity at CUNY (City University of New York): Results from a Survey of CUNY Undergraduate Students. The study invited a random sample of 6,883 students to participate, of whom 1,086 responded to USDA-validated survey questions.   

  • 39.2 percent of students sampled reported experiencing food insecurity during the previous 12 months. About twice as many (45.1 percent) reported that they worried they would not have enough money for food as reported they often or sometimes went hungry for lack of money (22.7 percent). 
  • In addition, 19.1 percent reported that they knew of other students who had food or hunger problems. 

Listen: To me? Bunker Hill Community College this week will have its 20th Mobile Market/Food Pantry in as many months. The Greater Boston Food Bank brings a truckload of food that nearly 200 students each time have collected for themselves and their families. Bunker Hill receives and distributes each weekday several cases of leftover but fresh bread from Panera. I shall persist and admit that I have again keep failed to persuade the American Association of Community Colleges to count how many of the nation’s 1,200 community colleges have services to address student hunger. The American Council on Education is helping raise these questions. 

My proposal?  Nourimandba, peanut butter, as 45 million peanut butter sandwiches that we, the people, provide each week. Estimate: Nine million times five days a week. Some distributed Saturdays and Sundays.  As a start, I’m willing to assume that the Pell students would be grateful for some food.  (Oh, have you seen the Weekend Backpack Program in Cambridge, Mass., where you and Secretary Duncan went to school?  This sends a backpack of food home so that eligible public school students can eat during the weekends.)

Listen:  To me?  Another peanut butter, plumpy’nut story. I was closing up one evening last summer. We hadn’t been able to find a shelter for a homeless student. The student kept telephoning shelters. Bread and peanut butter I had. I made him five more peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the weekend. I put them into a bag for him. What the heck? I put the jar of peanut butter and a loaf of bread and a plastic knife into the bag, too. "All this?" he asked me. "Sure. Just finish your education, run for president, and make sure no one in the U.S. is ever homeless again," I said. 

"My dream is to have no homelessness for students in college or any young people," he said. 

"What's your plan?" 

"I'd have shelters by age. There should be shelters for middle school students, then for high school, then for college," he told me. 

We just never know. I gave him paper, pens and a folder. "Come back Monday with your plan, and we'll send it to Senator Elizabeth Warren,” I said.

I haven’t seen him again.   

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Essay urges colleges to invest more in placement

When student debt surpassed credit card debt in 2010, exceeding the $1 trillion mark, higher education officials began focusing on how much college graduates owed after commencement — a whopping $26,600 on average, according to the latest statistics.

That figure is expected to rise about 5 percent annually unless institutions take such proactive measures as freezing tuition, streamlining curricula, consolidating departments, reorganizing colleges, and curtailing mission creep — all unpopular on the typical campus — meaning debt is here to stay for the foreseeable future.

That future is challenging for those saddled with lifelong debt before embarking on their careers.

It also effectively has changed how society views higher education, putting the emphasis on career over critical thinking, citizenship and lifelong learning, concepts that previously defined the importance of a college degree.

This is the hitherto undeclared harm that decades of loan-assisted academic expansion — curricular, technological, architectural and financial — has wrought on recent generations, necessitating that every discipline, especially the fine and liberal arts, emphasize placement.

Statistics speak for themselves:

  • Between 2000–11, the cost of undergraduate tuition, room, and board rose 42 percent at public institutions and 31 percent at private institutions, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
  • The Project on Student Debt reports that 2011 graduates faced a tough job market, resulting in an unemployment rate of 8.8 percent with many more graduates "underemployed, working just part-time or in lower paying jobs that did not require a college education."
  • The Institute for College Access and Success disclosed that 13.4 percent of student loan borrowers who began repaying loans in 2009 had defaulted by the end of 2011.

Graduates who default on loans likely will not create jobs as entrepreneurs or contribute to society a lifetime of meaningful work. Also, they are less likely to buy homes and otherwise enhance the economy because of the personal and professional setbacks accompanying poor credit histories.

Hallmarks of higher education — meaningful work and social contributions — are at risk if we in the academy fail to make placement a priority, for without adequate entry-level employment, students will not be able to jump-start careers.

Every department, from anthropology to zoology, can help defray burdensome loans by ensuring graduates are prepared for the workplace. Deans, provosts and presidents can require programs to place more emphasis on placement as part of the institution’s comprehensive assessment and strategic plans.

Here are some best practices from the Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University of Science and Technology:

1. Post a transparency page, displaying your placement rates. Persuasive arguments about the importance of your degree no longer suffice. Share facts, even if they are underwhelming. Over time, vow to improve them.

2. Create a career board, listing employment opportunities for your majors. Establish a relationship with companies that hire your graduates, publicize their openings, and direct your students to that site.

3. Profile prosperous alumni on your website, encouraging current students to contact them for career advice. The best advocates of your programs are ones who have earned a degree that played a critical role in their success.

4. Form an advisory council, including your most prestigious alumni. You may be surprised at the success of English, history and philosophy majors who developed critical thinking skills and enjoy fulfilling careers in government, industry and education.

5. Engage alumni and industry professionals in curriculum development, especially assessment, ensuring that your pedagogy is in keeping with career trends and cutting-edge methods.

6. Plan a jobs fair with panel discussions from recent graduates entering the work force. New employees can also inform existing students about networking, job shadowing, and portfolio preparation.

7. Recognize faculty with professional experience and contacts who provide career counseling in addition to curricular advising. Professors who prepare students for the workplace demonstrate the importance of a college degree by helping graduates network with alumni and potential employers.

8. Require an internship before graduation, helping students connect with future employers. An internship doesn’t have to relate to technical, scientific or professional fields; it can include nonprofits, fund-raising, human resources, museum curation —  any number of creative or critical positions associated with the arts and humanities. By engaging your alumni, you’ll know the range of jobs and titles that they hold.

9. Publicize a list of internships that past students have enjoyed, showcasing the companies that provided such positions. Use this list to generate scholarship and internship support when fund-raising.

10. Underwrite professorial externships in the summer so that faculty can better provide career advice. Externships also help professors across disciplines update their courses with real-world information.

11. Work with your college’s career center, making students aware of your institution’s employment resources. Staff can help students with mundane tasks, such as writing a résumé or cover letter, or can even provide mock interviews so that students can see the type of presentation they make when job seeking.

12. Work with student organizations to host speakers that advise on employment matters. Often such organizations are affiliated with professional associations that have contacts with government, industry or education. They can help place your graduates.

Many of the above recommendations also apply to students earning master’s degrees in nonprofessional fields who may find themselves owing large sums without the means to repay them. Graduate directors might advise students lacking professional experience to consider adding an internship to their plans of study.

Make no mistake: A college degree, in and of itself, can still prepare learners who go on to create jobs through invention and innovation or who think critically enough to manage large, complex organizations. It also can be argued that a college degree has retained its value as an investment, as graduates typically earn twice as much over the course of their careers as counterparts with only a high school diploma or its equivalent.

Nevertheless, making college affordable again will require more than career planning. However, this is something that we can do without much, if any, additional cost that also pays dividends in alumni and community relations, enrollment and retention, engagement and advising, and fund-raising and assessment.

Those reasons alone are enough to focus on placement so graduates find entry-level positions to help defray debt.

Michael Bugeja, director of the Greenlee School at Iowa State University, also chairs the Contemporary Leadership Committee of the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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In the fight against cheating, character counts (essay)

My first political philosophy teacher was the great Joseph Cropsey who, when we came to a difficult problem in Plato, would sometimes exhort us.

“Courage,” he would say, knowing that we were tempted to quit, not only  because Plato was a hard read but also because there was much in us, from vanity to laziness to fear, that resisted education.

Like Cropsey, Mark Edmundson thinks that education makes demands on a student’s character. In his 1997 Harper’s essay, “On The Uses of A Liberal Education: As Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students,” he retells the story of a professor who supposedly issued “a harsh two-part question. One: What book did you most dislike in the course? Two: What intellectual or characterological flaws in you does that dislike point to?” Edmundson admits that the question is heavy-handed but approves of the idea that teachers summon students to an encounter they may want to dodge. Students so challenged may skip the reading, or close themselves to what they read, or engage in other kinds of cheating.

I use “cheating” in the extended sense we use when we say our students are “cheating themselves.” James Lang, for the most part, means it more narrowly in in Cheating Lessons: Learning from Academic Dishonesty. But I thought of Cropsey and Edmundson as I read Cheating Lessons because Lang shies away from the question of character. Instead, his book is about helping “faculty members to respond more effectively to academic dishonesty by modifying the learning environments they [have] constructed.”

Lang, an associate professor of English at Assumption College, advances a “theory about how specific features of a learning environment can play an important role in determining whether or not students cheat.”  Students who think learning is a means to an end take shortcuts. So a learning environment discourages cheating when it fosters “intrinsic motivation in our students,” rather than “relying on extrinsic motivators such as grades.”

Students encouraged to outperform each other on high-stakes assessments feel pressure to cheat. So a learning environment discourages cheating  when it invites students to attain  “learning objectives” and permits them to show that attainment in a variety of ways, with low-stakes assessments preparing the way for high-stakes assessments. Students who think assignments are impossible will find it easy to justify cheating. So a learning environment discourages cheating when it instills a “strong but realistic sense of self-efficacy.”

But Lang does not want teachers to think of themselves as academic honesty cops. The most “exciting discovery [he] made while writing” Cheating Lessons is this: “environments which reduce the incentive and opportunity to cheat are the very ones that, according to the most current information we have about how human beings learn, will lead to greater and deeper learning.” 

Lang made this discovery, he writes, by looking at the “problem of cheating through the lens of cognitive theory.” For example, a teacher may think that giving frequent low-stakes assessments is a distraction from learning. Lang himself thought so until he found out “how little [he] knew about the basic workings of the brain.” The well-documented “testing effect” suggests that such assessments are not merely measures of learning but an effective means of helping students retain what they have learned.

Yet I balk at the very term “learning environment,” with its faint odor of antiseptic. Educators may use the term out of humility, placing themselves in the background and seeking not so much to teach as to place students in a situation in which they can learn. But the idea of a teacher as a constructor and modifier of learning environments merely shifts the teacher’s role from the front of the room to inside the control room, flipping switches and twisting dials, modifying conditions in the same way one might modify “the conditions of a laboratory,” in accordance with the latest learning theory. It is not obvious that this approach is humbler than that of Cropsey, who, while he stood in front of the room, nonetheless was visibly engaged in the same set of difficult and fascinating problems in which he sought to engage us. If we think of our students as subjects in our laboratory, to be manipulated and nudged toward desirable behaviors, how can we develop in them the qualities of character they will need to govern themselves in environments we do not control?

To be fair, Lang, who offers several exemplars of great teaching, is well aware that teachers are models, or even coaches, not just environmental technicians. But even when he profiles a teacher, Jim Hoyle, who plainly exemplifies for students both the joys and demands of work in his field, Lang is interested in how “the ways in which we communicate with students can also help them develop an appropriately gauged sense of self-efficacy.”

Hoyle, who has written his own book on teaching, indicates that there is something more going on when he describes his own role model, Vince Lombardi. Lombardi exemplified not only a way of communicating with athletes but a message, about “courage,” “determination,” “dedication,” and “sacrifice,” that Hoyle thinks “excellent ... for both teachers and students.”

Lang’s target readers “might feel uncertain about their ability to cultivate virtues in their students.” Lang himself reminds the reader that “you are not an ethics professor” and warns against haranguing. I assume Hoyle, like most sensible people, takes for granted neither his own virtues nor his capacity to foster them in others, and he does not, on Lang’s account, do much haranguing.

But Hoyle also seems to think that he need not be an American Philosophical Association certified moral expert to try to impart to students, as well as the readers of his book on teaching, the virtues that attend the best learning and teaching. The cultivation of such virtues may be a more effective spur to learning and antidote to cheating in its narrow and broad senses than the strategies, all of them useful, on which Lang focuses. As Peter Lawler has recently argued, teachers may do well to recall the “Aristotelian point” that “intellectual virtue depends on moral virtue.”

Admittedly, I cannot appeal to the social science literature on cheating that Lang has acquainted himself with to support that last set of claims. And I agree with him that teachers and administrators must not ignore what experiments can tell us about learning. It would be foolish to spend a dime on an academic integrity orientation before you have processed Dan Ariely’s finding that Princeton’s academic integrity orientation showed absolutely no effect on the likelihood that Princeton students would cheat on a math test two weeks after it ended. It would be foolish to ignore the results of the MIT experiment with a “studio model” for teaching physics, which dramatically reduced both cheating and the rate of failure in the course.

But Lang oversells what social science can tell us at present. For example, to support his argument that “performance oriented classrooms,” which emphasize “grades and competition among students,” encourage cheating, Lang cites a paper by Eric Anderman and Tamara Murdock. But Anderman and Murdock are more cautious than Lang because while “students report cheating more if they perceive the presence of a performance goal structure,” two studies find that “goal structure appears to be unrelated to cheating when a more objective method of assessing context is utilized.” The “extent to which teachers can reduce cheating by implementing” practices of the sort Lang recommends “is still unclear.”

Consider also Lang’s doubt that “hard punishments deter potential cheaters.” While Lang supports this claim in part by citing the work of Donald McCabe, Kenneth Butterfield, and Linda Trevino, they themselves have concluded, drawing on their own and others’ research, that  “academic dishonesty is negatively associated with  the perceived certainty of being reported and the perceived severity of penalties.” Similarly, Anderman and Murdock, in the same paper we have been considering, assume that “[f]ears of being caught and the perceived severity of the consequences for being caught are two of the most important deterrents to potential cheaters.”

Lang is still right to emphasize that “we have no incontrovertible evidence that harsh penalties deter cheating.” Moreover, I agree with him that an anti-cheating regime that focuses primarily on threats is unlikely to succeed. On the other hand, there is hardly a groundswell of support for harsh punishments. McCabe and his co-authors argue that the opposite is true: many faculty members have concluded that confronting cheating isn’t worth the trouble. How, they ask, “can we expect students to believe that cheating is a serious problem when faculty and others are reluctant to deal with cheaters ... when cheating receives minor consequences and, worst of all, when faculty look the other way?”

However that may be, Lang, as his discussion of the performance classroom shows, does not typically insist that evidence be incontrovertible before one acts on it. It is fine to set a high bar for accepting and acting on the results of social science research. But you can’t set a higher bar for approaches you are already inclined to disagree with than you set for approaches you are otherwise inclined to favor.

That’s cheating.

Jonathan Marks, author of Perfection and Disharmony in the Thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (Cambridge University Press, 2005), is associate professor of politics at Ursinus College. He tweets at


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