A Conversation with Sara Goldrick-Rab, Professor, Temple University & Founder, Wisconsin HOPE Lab

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A recent report by researchers at Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that 36 percent of students at 66 surveyed colleges and universities do not get enough to eat, and a similar number lack a secure place to live. Wisconsin HOPE Lab Founder, Sara Goldrick-Rab, joined Civitas Learning Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer, Mark Milliron, at Summit 2018 to discuss these findings. Below are brief highlights from the discussion on how we can support students who need support, but may not show or share their struggles, especially as it pertains to food and housing security.
Supporting  Life and Logistics
While we are right to be concerned with academic challenges faced by students at our institutions, there may be a lot more going into those challenges than we immediately see. When students take tests, they’re not only thinking about what they know and don’t know, but they may also be affected  by whether or not they had breakfast, or if they had a restful night of sleep. Today, these issues are not getting the attention they deserve in higher education. The challenging thing is students are going through these struggles at a time when many colleges and universities have less resources available to support individual  students. Sara believes institutions should become more creative and be more proactive about the ways they show their students that they care. This doesn’t always have to cost institutions money…. many times it simply takes time to devise or revise support strategies and time to foster an institutional culture that promotes deeper empathy.
Simple, Meaningful Actions
How can institutions take steps toward changing practice, policy and perception around students needs? Sara says this can start with something as simple as adding a statement to a syllabus that says something about students’ basic needs. For example, “If you are having trouble with housing, here is where you can find support.” We don’t have to promise additional assistance, but we can show our students that we are willing to listen. Giving students a chance to tell their story makes a difference for the student and  it really changes the perspective of the faculty / staff member, which may lead to them re-evaluate their practice. The idea behind sending positive nudges to students, which Civitas Learning partners are already doing, is that it doesn’t solve the problem, but it fosters a human connection between the institution and individual student, thereby  creating an opportunity to be there with open doors when problems arise for our students.
Affordability Innovation
One of the emerging best practices in the country is happening in Houston, where food scholarships are now enabling students to use a card that allows them to go to sites all over the city and campus to receive groceries every two weeks. They get to keep that scholarship while they’re in school and for a year after graduation — or for up to a year if they have to take a break from college. What’s more is that this isn’t costing Houston Community College anything because they partner with the local food bank, who already has funding for the food. This partnership is taking an innovative approach to solving for the food distribution, which can be one of the biggest challenges in solving food insecurity. When it comes to housing insecurity, in Tacoma, Was. the housing authority has Section 8 housing vouchers that are available for students in need. Tacoma Community College students benefit from this partnership at no cost to the institution. Transportation might be an issue addressed by subsidies for public transportation and ride-sharing services. While it is a complex challenge to tackle, schools can identify local mechanics willing to offer a discounted rate for students as a low-lift initiative to reduce transportation barriers for their students. Emergency aid has also become a helpful practice across institutions. Sara warns that institutions should not create a lengthy, bureaucratic process around emergency aid access, but rather empower people at the institution to grant aid to students quickly and easily. Putting just $300 in the hands of a student quickly can keep their lives from derailing irreversibly. When Hurricane Harvey hit the state of Texas, Harvey HELP, which was a project facilitated  by local higher ed leaders and organizations, raised funds from businesses, nonprofits and higher ed institutions to provide emergency aid for affected students. Sara served as an advisor for this program and, with her guidance, almost $900,000 of the total amount raised was distributed to students quickly.
How Can Students Get Involved
Sara noted that what is commonly said about millennials is far off base. Today’s students have gone through one of the hardest economic times in our history, and they are coming out of it with deeper intentions and actions in support of their community. For example, food pantries at many colleges and universities were started by students, and students are leading food recovery efforts. There is a shelter in Los Angeles that was started by a student that used the money his parents gave him for his education expenses, which he saved and then used to fund the creation of the shelter. The best thing we can do for our students is not tell them what to do to help their peers, but rather follow their leadership and support them in their ideas.