The signs of student homelessness and hunger on campus are easy to miss: rumors circulating of that generous professor who brings snacks to the classroom, a surge in faculty complaints around students taking extra-long naps in the lounge, or maybe more students are bringing plastic bags to campus events which offer food.
That last one, says Natalie Harder, chancellor of South Louisiana Community College, is what made her realize how deeply these issues were impacting her campus.
“I remember asking my student engagement office why there were so many leftovers, and they said it was a conscious decision to have that much food. That’s when I realized we had a bigger problem,” said Harder. “I thought 'oh my god' I completely underestimated people’s willingness to ask for help. I was overwhelmingly disappointed in myself for not noticing before; it’s an unpleasant feeling to realize you aren’t taking care of people the way you could’ve.”
Housing and food insecurity are not new issues on college campuses. The Wisconsin Hope Lab, a research group focusing on issues of postsecondary student equity, found in its 2018 “Still Hungry and Homeless in College” survey of 43,000 students at 66 institutions that 36% of four-year college students were food insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey, with that figure being 42% for community college students. Similarly, 36% of university students said they were housing insecure and 9% said they were homeless, while 46% of community college students cited housing insecurity and 12% said they were homeless.
But, it wasn’t until the last few years that these issues have garnered greater national attention, say higher education leaders like Harder. The reckoning has many administrators feeling like they should have and need to do more. But when many students are often too scared to ask for help, executives are wondering: How can we be better first responders?
Develop a practice of deliberate observation
Sara Goldrick-Rab, Temple University professor of higher education policy who founded the Hope Lab in 2013, told Education Dive the group’s production of studies on housing and food insecurity that spurred a great deal of national attention was “not an accident.”
“Nobody was creating the pressure for systemic change. So when we produced rigorous evidence, we actively communicated about our research in a way that created pressure. We wanted to get it into the hands of those leaders,” said Goldrick-Rab.
And, administrators can attest such statistics have been eye-opening for them. While the issue plays out in higher education broadly, many in the sector didn’t realize just how much. Similar to what Harder noted, Marva Craig, vice president of student affairs at Borough of Manhattan Community College in New York City, said the focus on these issues is fairly new.
“It’s only recently that we’re focusing on food insecurity and homelessness in this way. Major studies started about six or seven years ago with the Hope Lab,” said Craig, who noted that the CUNY system found in a 2011 survey around 42% of students were housing unstable.
Patricia Gentile, president of North Shore Community College in Danvers, Massachusetts, where nearly 70% of students report struggling with housing or food insecurity, said she was shocked by survey comments from the student body. “By the end of reading 900 comments from our students, I was heartbroken to hear the struggles; it made it real for us,” said Gentile, who added that the first step to confronting these issues was for her to practice more observation of the campus.
Create a network of care
The takeaway for these administrators — pay attention to signs of student struggle on campus and ask faculty members if they’ve noticed any. Craig explained it’s critical to facilitate a network of communicative observers within the faculty team, noting food insecurity begins with a student asking a professor for money to eat at the cafeteria. Goldrick-Rab agreed, saying a significant challenge is faculty members often distance themselves from traumatic issues like these or they don’t know emotionally how to help students.
Goldrick-Rab decided to put a statement on her own syllabus inviting students to ask for help, but she admits not all instructors are prepared for a move like that. “Some people told me 'I wouldn’t know what to do if they came to me.' But, if you aren’t ready to know where the resources are for your students, you aren’t ready to teach," she said. "At the same time it makes me incredibly sad, it also makes me more committed to letting administrators know.”
“But then again, the vast majority of my colleagues are adjuncts, I don’t have that many highly paid colleagues," she added. "It can be hard for them to balance the job and the work of emotionally being there for students. Faculty get very little training on having to deal with students’ mental health, and that’s a barrier.”
Deborah Harte is director of BMCC’s Single Stop program, where students can go to one office for a range of services, from financial counseling to help finding part-time jobs on campus and even comfort. She said the institution tries to make sure faculty members are aware of how to communicate resources to the students.
“We email the faculty every semester, informing them of the emergency fund, informing them of the pantry,” said Harte. The college even had Goldrick-Rab come to campus to talk to professors about food and housing insecurity, so they could be more engaged and aware. “Hearing from a person who had done national work — that totally changed the faculty views," she said. "They realized when you have hungry students in the classroom, they will not perform their best. The message resonated with them. ”
Avoid alienation by de-stigmatizing help
The moral need for administrators to pay attention to these issues is just as clear as the business need, Gentile said. “Addressing those emergency needs beyond tuition and fee support is what we are going to have to do to make sure our students enroll and complete,” she said. “This is going to impact our workforce over time. This is not a charitable thing; it’s an economic thing.”
But, sometimes figuring out how to accomplish this goal can be difficult. For instance, Brian Carroll, former president of Vatterott College in Kansas City, told the Kansas City Star that he lost his job when he allowed a homeless student to stay overnight in the campus library on a near-zero temperature night. Opening the building after hours was against school policy, the paper reported.
For administrators finding the right approach between business and moral decisions can be difficult, Craig said. “There’s a lounge space on campus with steps that are carpeted. We are not crazy about students sleeping on there, but we never remove them. There’s an understanding among faculty, so these students don’t feel unwelcome. But, we enforce they can only stay during building hours.”
Take the easy steps
Still, there are a number of easy steps administrators can take, one of which is having a food pantry on campus — but leaders have to be careful to de-stigmatize its use, said Gentile. “When we made the pantry, we asked our entire faculty, staff and all students to participate and go out and get food. It wasn’t just the poor kids going out and getting it; we’re all in this together,” she said.
Denise Bevly, director of student wellness at the California State University system, says her campus foremost tries to create a standard framework campuses can plug into, where sustainable best practices at individual institutions can be learned from and scaled up. She said campus studies show about 11% of CSU students were homeless in the last year and around 41% have experienced food insecurity.
“We look at the immediate needs of our students with things like food distribution systems and emergency housing,” said Bevly. “But we also try to connect with them more by providing case managers, so that we can connect them to community resources and find creative solutions for them.”
Bevly added that going deep into existing programs and figuring out how to subtly raise awareness about resources on campus also goes a long way, so students are aware but not overwhelmed.
Network to find resources for change
Gentile acknowledges that as college president she feels the need to take care of students. But, she has to consider what it means to redistribute resources.
“As a community college, we are also dealing with scarce resources. How do you shift resources to support our at risk students?” she said. “You reallocate, you choose which tools make a difference and don’t. You have to have a strategic vision as to how to get all of this accomplished."
So to get ahead of this, administrators have sought partnerships with community support systems that are happy to provide resources for students. That’s the option Gentile pursued.
“If we run out of money, we will find more money,” she said, noting that completion is still the key economic agenda. “We find solutions."
Gentile said, for instance, the college opened a dialogue with the Boston food distribution center to get canned and fresh food and worked with the local YMCA to provide a greatly discounted memberships so students could get access to wellness and fitness and supports.
Bevly has taken the same approach at CSU, but with the goal of sustainability in mind.
“For housing insecurity, getting resources is a lot more difficult," she said. "There are policies and procedures in place, and many of the dorms are at capacity for students paying." So the system sometimes has housing partnerships with hotels and case managers serve as community connections that can help students find resources.
But, Bevly said, sometimes the the best thing to do is to teach students how to get out of a bind themselves, "so they can always find the help they need.”