The issue of hunger and homelessness among college students is quickly becoming one of the most pressing concerns in higher education. To learn more about how college educators are fighting hunger and homelessness, I spoke with a few of the professionals across the country who are working to fight this problem. Additionally, I explore how ideas, like the myth of meritocracy, and neoliberal influences, like corporate online textbook services, may be contributing to the problem. Finally, I share insights from higher education professionals about what others can do to fight college hunger and homelessness.
(15 minute read, 3 minute skim)
The year is 2019 and many college students in the United States experience hunger and homeless. That last sentence wasn’t a typo, an error, or an exaggeration. The issue of hunger and homelessness among college students is quickly becoming one of the most pressing concerns in higher education.
A national survey of 87,000 college students taken last year by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice revealed that students who reported having difficulty paying rent and buying groceries were 60% at 2-year colleges, and 48% at 4-year schools. The study also indicated that homelessness impacted 18% of students at two-year colleges, and 14% at four-year institutions. Here are a few more statistics about hunger and homeless and how those experiences might affect college students:
Heroes Among Us
In spite of the staggering and sobering reality of these statistics, there are heroes among us in higher education who are working to combat this problem.
To learn more about how college educators are fighting hunger and homelessness, I spoke with a few of the professionals across the country who are working to fight this problem, including Nicole Hindes, the Assistant Director of the Human Services Resource Center (HSRC) at Oregon State University, and Dr. Sheila Moriarty, Assistant Professor of Social Work and staff leader of the Bridge to Community Resources program at St. Cloud State University.
The HSRC is an organization within the Office of Student Life at OSU that aims to “humanize students marginalized by inequity, poverty, and oppression”. One of the first of its kind in the United States, the HSRC provides students in-need with access to a food pantry, emergency housing, parking vouchers, and a textbook lending program.
“I’m into putting myself out of a job,” Hindes noted when asked about her approach to serving students. The goal of eradicating hunger and homeless may sound lofty, but for educators like Nicole Hindes, it’s very concrete. “I hold administrative power. I attend budget meetings, and I have to make sure I’m representing the needs of my students,” said Hindes. She also noted that she regularly advocates for her students regarding funding legislation at the state capital, while simultaneously helping students navigate personal crises, all in the same day. As an educator, her aim is to raise awareness about class identity in college.
“I hold administrative power. I attend budget meetings, and I have to make sure I’m representing the needs of my students.”
- Nicole Hindes
The Bridge to Community Resources program at SCSU supports the academic and personal well-being of students by connecting them with community and campus resources. “Our motto is ‘Be caring, follow through, and never give up,” shared Moriarty. “We are creating a space where students come in to talk about resources and our interns are out in the community learning about the funds that no one else knows about. Students will own what they’re a part of. I want students to be a part of the problem solving.” In addition to resources, the primarily student-run program provides assistance to the campus community by offering students meaningful opportunities to lead the program through internships.
Myths and Unfulfilled Promises
And while there are many professionals like Moriarty and Hindes across the country, working to combat hunger and homelessness among college students, the issue of poverty as it relates to social class identity is rarely discussed. In their recent book, Straddling Class in the Academy (2019), Dr. Sonja Ardoin and Dr. becky martinez address the silence and discomfort around the conversation of class in higher education. Despite coming from a wide variety of diverse identities and experiences, Ardoin and martinez show how students who were raised in a poor or working-class background share common struggles and barriers to success in college. For example, many students reported intense feelings of shame regarding their class-identity during college. Conversely, many of these same students also reported feeling an overwhelming sense of pride in their poor or working-class identity.
Photo: Stylus Publishing
Perhaps one reason why social class and class identity are not often discussed in higher education is due to the prevalence of the myth of meritocracy. Meritocracy, also known as the American dream, refers to “the dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every [person], with opportunity for each according to [their] ability or achievement” (Adams, 1931, p. 404). In other words, anyone can be successful if they simply work hard and pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Many scholars agree that this belief about meritocracy in the United States is a myth or a lie because in a capitalist society, social mobility is not a realistic possibility for everyone (Horschild, 1995; 2003; Longoria, 2009; McNamee & Miller Jr., 2009). This is particularly true for those who experience systemic oppression based on other marginalized identities, like race and gender.
Many scholars agree that this belief about meritocracy in the United States is a myth or a lie because in a capitalist society, social mobility is not a realistic possibility for everyone.
At its roots, higher education in the United States is planted in the promise of social mobility. Education has historically been one of the most important social policies for a majority Americans, because many hold the belief that education is the solution to all of our country’s problems (Horschild, 2009). At the end of the day, “Americans want the educational system to help translate the American Dream from vision to practice” (Alvarado, 2010, p. 14). Although this idea might be comforting to voters, policy makers, and administrators alike, education is not the silver bullet to ending all of our problems. Many research studies and personal accounts have established the barriers that exist for marginalized students in college. These challenges continue, even after degree attainment. If college is supposed to be the great equalizer for social mobility, there seem to be whole groups of people, like Students of Color and Women, who have been left behind.
It is no wonder that those who work at colleges and universities shy away from conversations about social class. Promising students social mobility and then failing to make good on that promise is an embarrassing elephant in the room that no one wants to address. The silence speaks volumes. And, as consumerism and corporations continue to creep onto campuses, many higher education professionals remain quiet about the impact of neoliberalism on students, educators, and the future of higher education. Though it may be a difficult reality to face, college educators must be willing to critically examine their own beliefs about social mobility and reconcile those beliefs with the professions’ values of social justice and inclusion.
Though it may be a difficult reality to face, college educators must be willing to critically examine their own beliefs about social mobility and reconcile those beliefs with the professions’ values of social justice and inclusion.
Corporations Adding Value, at a Cost
Aside from the rising rates of tuition and student fees, a significant factor in the problem of college hunger and homelessness is the cost of course materials, including textbooks. In a recent study, 41% of students reported that the cost of textbooks and other course materials had “somewhat of an impact” on their financial situation, while 46% said that these costs had “a big impact.” Students from low-income or working-class backgrounds may be able to pull together the funds to pay for tuition and housing, but if they can’t buy textbooks, their grades may suffer and their chances for success in college go down. When faced with the choice to buy groceries or textbooks, many students who struggle financially choose to prioritize their education over their wellness.
In a recent study, 41% of students reported that the cost of textbooks and other course materials had “somewhat of an impact” on their financial situation, while 46% said that these costs had “a big impact.”
Many professors, especially adjuncts who are overworked and underpaid, have started using online course evaluation and textbook programs. Traditional publishers, like Pearson, McGraw Hill, and Cengage, have embraced the shift to providing online educational resources, opening the door for others to follow suit. For a fee, these online education services offer students a convenient platform to access assignments, homework, quizzes, exams, and textbooks. One such platform, called Top Hat, offers instructors a comprehensive solution to take attendance, administer homework, test and grade in real-time. On the student side, Top Hat provides engaging course materials for students to interact with each other and their professors before, during, and after class.
I spoke with Nina Angelo, the VP of Product Marketing at Top Hat, to learn more about how the company accounts for students who struggle to pay for college. “There is a high pressure to make course materials more affordable and we have seen those costs go down,” said Angelo. “On the other hand, there is a sea of tech vendors trying to provide a value to institutions and students. It is a value over cost equation.” Angelo noted that Top Hat aims to “dramatically increase the value by making it more engaging, impactful, and rewarding, which ultimately improves learning outcomes.”
Companies like Top Hat often promote themselves as an affordable educational resource, but for low-income students the transition to online educational platforms may actually be more costly than traditional paper textbooks. With Top Hat, students pay a monthly fee and an upfront cost, which can be prohibitive for some students, like those who attend part-time or those who would otherwise sell books back at the end of the semester. “Sure, students will complain about paying for textbooks, because they don’t see the value. Students want to be engaged. They are hungry for interactivity. We want the functionality of our product to be so seamless that they forget about the print format.”
Companies like Top Hat often promote themselves as an affordable educational resource, but for low-income students the transition to online educational platforms may actually be more costly than traditional paper textbooks.
When asked about what Top Hat is doing for students who struggle to pay for course materials, Angelo said, “We think about those students a lot, every day. We try to work with institutions to take the burden off of students by purchasing institutional licenses. At the instructor level, we offer professors a few free student access codes to use at their discretion. Our prices are competitive, especially for textbooks.”
The verdict is still out about online educational resources like Top Hat. Many instructors and students have found these tools to be helpful, though not a perfect solution for classroom assessment, engagement, and content delivery. With consistent decreases in funding for higher education over the past ten years, colleges and universities have less money to provide these kinds of resources for instructors and students. As a result, students are being asked to pick up the tab. Since corporations and capitalism have turned the classroom into a marketplace, we can expect companies like Top Hat to continue offering valuable educational services for educators and students, at a cost.
Although the financial constraints on students continue to present challenges for students and educators, many higher education professionals are working to advocate for students and offer some of the resources they need to be successful in college. Basic needs centers, like the HSRC at Oregon State and the Bridge to Community Resources Program at St. Cloud State University, are becoming more prevalent at colleges and universities across the country. Additionally, educators are making individual efforts in their daily practice to mindfully resist the effects of neoliberalism that lead to hunger and homelessness in higher education.
For example, Hindes shared how she thinks intentionally about working with her student staff in order to support their financial needs and prepare them for a hyper-competitive workplace after college. “I structure the student pay scale and offer them more than minimum wage to start,” she said. “When they return and take on more leadership responsibilities, they can come to me to practice asking for a raise. I want them to get the experience of having that conversation. They are likely going to enter a challenging, competitive, capitalistic economy. One thing I can do is teach them how to advocate for themselves and find power within the system by helping them get confident speaking about their strengths and the value they bring to a team.”
Moriarty draws from over two decades of professional experience as a social worker to inform how she navigates the impact of neoliberalism in her work. “I came from a non-profit background where creativity is very important. For me, it’s all about creating something with what you already have,” said Moriarty about her approach to innovating for social justice in her community. “From that, amazing things can arise. You find that you can create something even better than if you had all the money in the world.” She continued by saying, “In the era of cash-strapped universities, we have to reimagine how we solve problems. If we step back and take a look at the resources we already have, we can do amazing things. I’m primarily talking about bringing students in and helping them create a sense of ownership in the space and the work.”
“In the era of cash-strapped universities, we have to reimagine how we solve problems. If we step back and take a look at the resources we already have, we can do amazing things."
- Dr. Sheila Moriarty
In addition to empowering students, educators must also cultivate practices that promote their own agency and well-being in the face of neoliberalism. Doing so will not only decrease the likelihood of burnout, but it will also ensure that educators can continue to be good stewards for their students. “We need to create the norms and structures in our work environments for everyone to feel safe, secure, and supported so that we can do excellent work for our students,” noted Hindes. For her, this means thinking about mindful ways to stay centered in her professional practice and fostering a culture where she and her staff can show up as authentically as possible.
For Moriarty, having agency in her work involves a commitment to her students and the work itself. She described this commitment by saying, “If I believe in what I’m doing, I just do it. By doing this, I discovered what is called burn through.” Instead of leaving her field when she has felt burnt out, Moriarty has consistently made the choice to lean in, and by doing so, she noted that she leveled off and found joy again. "I lost all my fear of the work. It allowed me to be exactly who I wanted to be.”
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Here are a few resources that college educators can use to promote a culture of empowerment and agency in their leadership roles:
Additionally, “the best resources are never encased in a book,” noted Moriarty. Her recommendation for how to best empower students is to spend a day engaging in service-learning and then to process the experience well so that the learning becomes digested. “When this happens,” she concluded, “the education opens up right in front of you.”
Adams, J. T. (1931). The epic of America. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company.
Alvarado, L. A. (2010). Dispelling the meritocracy myth: Lessons for higher education and student affairs educators. The Vermont Connection, 31, 10-20.
Ardoin, S. & martinez, b. (2019). Straddling class in the academy: 26 stories of students, administrators, and faculty from poor and working-class backgrounds and their compelling lessons for higher education policy and practice. Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Hochschild, J. (1995). Facing up to the American dream: Race, class, and the soul of the nation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Hochschild, J. (2003). The American dream and the public schools. NY: Oxford University Press.
Longoria, R. T. (2009). Meritocracy and Americans' views on distributive justice. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
Lynch, R. J. (2017). Breaking the silence: A phenomenological exploration of secondary traumatic stress in U.S. college student affairs professionals. Doctoral Dissertation. Old Dominion University.
McNamee, S. J., & Miller Jr., R. K. (2009). The meritocracy myth. Lanham, MD: The Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, Inc.
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