F is the grade I give myself for this past academic year at Bunker Hill Community College.
F? I ran out of bread.
A few Fridays ago, at the end of the day, I asked a young boy, maybe twelve, if he had had anything to eat that day.
“No,” the boy told me.
He had arrived with his mother, a student, who was looking for help. We used to ask students if they were hungry. The question was too easy to evade. Instead we ask, “Have you had anything to eat today?” A colleague helped the mother.
I had just the end of a baguette -- from the four? five? boxes of bread that Panera had donated that day. All day, students had arrived for loaves of bread or to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, to find help enrolling for food stamps, to sign up for the next food pantry when the Greater Boston Food Bank each month delivers 5,000 pounds of groceries that vanish in an orderly hour. All this, remember, at an institution of higher education in the United States in 2014.
I drew the baguette end from a plastic bag. To make a tiny sandwich for the boy, I broke the bread. I what? For crying out loud, you don’t have to be an English major. I broke the bread. (I know, I know; that’s just what I did.) I came to Bunker Hill seven years ago to teach College Writing 1. I have become a jury-rigged social worker. No complaints. I hadn’t worked out then that relieving hunger is a prerequisite to teaching College Writing.
F? Again? (Click here.) So far, I have no decent plan, beyond shouting, to persuade 14,000 poverty-pummeled students to commit to a job letter or a transfer essay free of errors in grammar, in punctuation, in ESL.
F? I failed to put a question about hunger/poverty on the federal College Scorecard. Even with a deputy under secretary of education interested, I failed to persuade enough colleges to write in with the request. F? No luck on my plan to improve college completion with my way-too-simple idea – a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich for the nine million students on Pell Grants. (Details here.) I even lobbied the peanut lobby. Forty-five million peanut butter sandwiches a week added to the federal budget? Not a nibble.
Paying students to study, to ease the money-for-rent/time-to-study tradeoff? (Details here.) Nowhere.
Slight shifts in tax policy? Nope. Any action to alter the reality that the neediest college students in the U.S. receive the least college aid? Nope. (My failed May 2013 proposal, Time for a Revolution.) Did I find a plaintiff to bring this to federal court? Nope.
“Are you off your meds?” a close family member demanded. “Stop being so depressing.” Find a shrink in August? I’ll put on J.S. Bach, no, WGBO Jazz 88 in Newark to stir me in a cheerier direction.
F? I haven’t stopped that asteroid about to smash into the U.S. economy and society. What asteroid? The nine million students on Pell Grants. That group for whom the accepted, not-Cassandra, not-Chicken-Little truth higher ed experts believe (and I agree) is that half will fail to complete their college degree or professional certificate. Query to the many wonks more able than me: Which half will fail? Help me begin?
My refrain, for as long as I’ve been writing, I still pray every day for better ideas than mine. I have many critics; no takers with better ideas.
Am I wrong about the asteroid? How about another metaphor? America’s Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation’s Future, the 2007 report by Arwin Kirsch, Henry Braun, Kentaro Yamamoto, and Andrew Sum, published by the Educational Testing Service, the higher ed establishment itself. (Click here for details.) The report details how “substantial disparities in skill levels (reading and math); seismic economic changes (widening wage gaps); and sweeping demographic shifts (less education, lower skills)” are creating skill and income gaps that shut too many out of the workforce. The American Dream, the report despairs, could become the American Tragedy.
Second, the U.S. is a market economy. If education is a good social investment, and if the U.S. needs more trained workers, should we, the people, be shortchanging nine million students we all know are at risk? Finance 101 says public capital should follow good investments. Wouldn’t, then, more public investment to prevent the perfect storm be a sound investment? Won’t undereducated students cost more public money? Why isn’t public capital trying to invest in even one million of the nine million?
To the critics about to post comments below: I have oversimplified nothing here. Don’t blame Congress and the U.S. Senate. Why are we, the people, stuck? Do I mean free discretionary education for all? No, I have proposed federal funding first focus on essential skills -- reading writing, and math. My plan is that Pell students must pass the Advanced Placement exams in expository writing and statistics before being eligible for Pell funding for courses in any other subjects. F again. (Click here for details.)
But, third, why are we, the people, watching this asteroid plummet? Or, worse, going to conferences with free lunches? Spewing undereducated, industrious, motivated human beings into society and the economy makes no sense. To me, anyway.
We may not (yet) have a unified theory to solve everything for the nine million students on Pell Grants. How about lunch and a T pass? Apply the Hippocratic oath? Paul Farmer, in public health, has called out similar blindness to public health crises such as AIDS in Africa. What gives any of us the right, Farmer might ask, to just watch 4.5 million students fail? “A failure of imagination” is one of Farmer’s terms. I feel so convicted. Anyone else?
Here is an example, of such “failure of imagination.” School opens again in a few weeks. What about the federal free and reduced lunch students voluntarily going on to a postsecondary credential?
Here in Boston, leaders know 70 percent of the k-12 public school students are on federal free and reduced lunch and most receive a free bus/T pass. Any of these students continuing their education after high school lose their lunch and the T pass. The T pass is $70 per month. Lunch? Pick a number.
I’ve heard no disagreement to the notion that students on free and reduced lunch are low-income, poor. I’ve read of no infusions of capital after high school for such students. So, the students are down $100 per month, and often hungry, for choosing to go beyond high school. And I’ve added food stamp certification, bread, peanut butter and jelly, and food-bank-pallet unloading to my professional skills.
“Cheer up. Can’t you write a column about the good that happened this year?” said another empathetic /despairing/weary friend.
O.K., with my essential disclaimer: All my good outcomes depended, too, on many, many people. “Might not have happened without me (or them)” is my good-outcome criterion.
A student who had gone on to graduate from UMass Boston came by with an impenetrable offer of financial aid (or maybe not?) from her “dream school” in public policy. I connected the student with a human being at the school. Success. The student is back on her track to start an NGO to help women in poverty in Africa.
“You came to my class a few weeks ago, to show us that cool website to help us with grammar and punctuation. I know I need to improve my writing. I have some questions about the site. Can you help me?” This was after spring classes had ended. The speaker standing in the doorway of my office? A male, of color, urban, U.S.-born, in other words the group deemed least likely to succeed in college. At my door. We are working on grammar.
Six veterans succeeding this summer in the Research Experience for Undergraduates at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.
Should I be cheered up? But, but, but…. Such success reporting just enables the stuck-in-a-swamp narrative we have about educating the poor in the U.S. today. “Oh, the problems are overwhelming. What can we do? Help one student at a time. Thank goodness people like [fill in the name of a public school teacher or community college professor you know] are willing to do what they do every day.”
And the asteroid plummets closer.
F? I ran out of bread? I can’t mark any progress.
A homeless student showed up late one Friday last summer. I had bread enough to make him a weekend's worth of PB&Js while he telephoned shelters. I had a bag, and I sent him on his way with more bread and jars of peanut butter and jelly, a plastic knife and napkins.
Progress this summer? A family instead of one student in need, including children? And I ran out of bread? Is it progress that this summer I could send the boy on his way with a 40-oz., instead of a 16-oz., jar of peanut butter?
F? Yes, because this summer I ran out of bread.
Wick Sloane is an end user of a higher education. Follow him @WickSloane.
Are students evaluated on their academic work, or on how well they navigate the college environment? Both, a recent book argues -- which is why mentoring programs should aim to unmask the "hidden curriculum" for at-risk students.
Apartment-style dorm rooms are the Hot New Thing at some colleges nowadays. Single rooms instead of doubles or even quads, exterior doors instead of crowded hallways, private bathrooms instead of gang showers and those icky shared toilets, even mini-kitchens instead of the noisy dining hall – all have an undeniable appeal for incoming freshmen looking to maximize the more adult features of undergraduate life.
Many contemporary students grew up with their own bedrooms, and perhaps even their own bathrooms, and may recoil from sharing their personal spaces with that mysterious stranger, the roommate or hallmate. So colleges and universities, particularly sensitive to the preferences of full-pay students, are starting to move away from traditional long-hallway dorms to more individualized rooms, some with generous amenities. Prospective students seem to love the idea.
They shouldn’t. Apartment-style dorms can be deadly for a student’s long-term success in college, isolating newcomers at exactly the moment when they most need to be reaching out and making friends. Early connections, made when students are most available for meeting new people, are a crucial first step to the community integration that scholars have long known is crucial to student retention and success. When my former student and current doctoral student Chris Takacs and I followed nearly 100 students throughout college and afterward in researching our book How College Works, we found that “high contact” settings such as traditional dorms – featuring long hallways, shared rooms and common bathrooms, where students have no choice but to meet lots of peers – are the single best device for helping new students to solve their biggest problem: finding friends. And dorms are especially valuable for students who are shy, unusually nervous about coming to college, or otherwise feel excluded. Finding one buddy to pal around with is all that’s needed to ensure a positive first-year experience.
Of course dorms aren’t the only place that students make friends. Extracurricular groups that convene frequently and include a couple dozen members are a great source of potential companions (smaller groups don’t work as well). Greek letter societies, sports teams, campus newspapers, and larger musical ensembles serve the purpose. At the college we studied, the choir -- with over 70 members, a dynamic director, rigorous auditions, and frequent rehearsals and performances -- offered a marvelous opportunity for its members to form close bonds, which in turn helped them become, in our network analysis, some of the most socially connected students at the college.
Still, dormitories are different: they are open to everyone. You don’t need any special talent or athletic ability or an outgoing personality to live in a dorm and thus benefit from meeting a variety of peers. Dorms aren’t exclusive. After that first year, a student will likely have made friends and found his or her niche, but until then, broad exposure seems to be the best pathway to success.
So how can admissions and student affairs staff convince incoming students to live in those overcrowded rooms and share their showers with people they may not even like? And how can college presidents be convinced not to engage in the housing arms race of catering to the students who seem to favor luxury and privacy over the group experience? Apartments are appealing, after all, and colleges need the money that full-pay students will pony up for their own little pad.
Try anything. Tell students the odds are they will have a more successful and happy first year at college in this kind of dorm. If you have any money, recarpet the long hallways, improve the shared bathrooms, and upgrade the dorm rooms in that big old building. Try to keep the showers clean. If the rooms can’t be quads, at least make them doubles; if they are singles, at least keep the common bathrooms. Point out that you charge less for the old-fashioned dorm rooms.
Tell prospective students that they’ll meet more people in a dorm; give dorm residents priority in getting sophomore housing. Focus your programming efforts on the early part of the first year, when students are socially available – and often looking for friends. Remember, when more students have repeated, obligatory exposure to a sizable group of other students, more of them will find the one or two buddies who see them through their first year.
Ten years ago this August my wife and I drove our youngest daughter Rebecca down to New York City, to help her move into a freshman dorm at Fordham University. We arrived amid a sea of parents, siblings, RAs, and energetic young women hauling those loaded duffel bags and laundry baskets up big institutional stairwells to the fourth floor. The scene at the top was unforgettable: scores of people, crowded into a long hallway, with 20 rooms – all quads, bunk beds stacked up – lined down a long hallway, girls laughing and talking, helping each other out, and making introductions all around. A young faculty couple with a baby lived in an apartment at the end of the hall, and a priest had a room on the floor below. It was a scene of gentle pandemonium.
Becca stood there, her mouth hanging open in amazement, not yet realizing that four of her best friends in life would come from that hallway. My wife and I, both professors, smiled at each other. “This,” we thought, “will be great.”
Daniel F. Chambliss is Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hamilton College. He is the author, with Christopher G. Takacs, ofHow College Works(Harvard University Press).