Colleges must "think beyond financial aid" when it comes to supporting diverse and changing student populations, argued several community college leaders at a recent DREAM conference hosted by nonprofit Achieving the Dream.
Community college leaders from 48 states convened to discuss student success initiatives, reports Sydney Johnson for EdSurge. Among the topics discussed was the importance of addressing students' basic needs.
Polling by Amarillo College (AC) in Texas and HopeLab suggests that students' struggles have little to do with academics. Rather, the top 10 challenges students reported related to finding housing, transportation, utilities, childcare, and legal services.
"I was thinking we needed more tutoring, which we do, but I was changed because our students told us profoundly that their lives outside the classroom were affecting what's happening inside the classroom," said AC president Russell Lowery-Hart during the panel.
In response to these findings, the college opened a childcare center, an advocacy center, and a resource center with a food pantry where students can connect with local nonprofits and acquire social services. Since AC implemented these new services, the three-year graduation rate has risen from 13% to 22%.
Practical steps colleges can take to support their homeless students
Still, some leaders in the panel argued that colleges "are not social service organizations," and that it's "not the role of community colleges to provide non-academic supports for students who attend."
Lowery-Hart said he "didn't come to my position and my experience in higher education to be an advocate in engaging in the war zone on poverty." But "[y]ou can't ignore what's happening outside your college walls if you want to change what's happening inside your college walls," he added.
And that includes the larger structural problems that contribute to student hunger and homelessness, argued Mei-Yen Ireland, executive director of holistic student supports at Achieving the Dream. "Underlying it is structural racism," he said. "We have to be calling that out and educating on that."
Cheryl Crazy Bull, president and CEO of the American Indian College Fund, added that structural racism is a problem of particular importance for tribal colleges. "What's unique about tribal colleges and universities is that most of them are located in rural communities as a result of U.S. policy and practice," said Crazy Bull. "In their beginning, these had to be aware that they were dealing with a community that already had insufficient housing and were in food desserts."
So to help meet students' basic needs, college leaders in the panel agreed that cultural changes need to take root. "We tell students you should work harder or pull yourself up from your bootstraps, as if we didn't have people who helped us get to this point in our lives," said Lowery-Hart. "Our students understand the real world. They should be teaching us. We are so often shielded from it" (Johnson, EdSurge, 2/21).
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