Tackling Hunger On Campus

February 8, 2014, 6:13 pm

food stampsI was glad to see this article by Peg Tyre about Franklin and Marshall College’s efforts to recruit and retain low income students. “Poor students who are accepted into selective four-year universities often find themselves adrift,” Tyre writes, ”overwhelmed by the financial, academic and cultural challenges created by an environment shaped to serve the habits and needs of the wealthy” (The New York Times, February 5, 2014).

Full disclosure: I happen to like this little liberal arts college in Lancaster, PA, a 45-minute Amtrak ride from Philadelphia. Years ago, I was part of a visiting committee at F&M, and I returned to consult on a second project. Each time, I found it a thoughtful place. I was impressed by the care that faculty took with their students (want to work at F&M? Guess what? When I visited, faculty were expected to be at the office five days a week, like other people with full time jobs.) I was also impressed by some of the ways the college was responding to the evolving academic job market: when a scholar came with a partner, F&M would split the job into two 3/4 lines (yes, that adds up to more than one tenure-track job.)

Now, the college has boosted the number of economically disadvantaged poor students to 17%. Instead of using their financial aid dollars to ease the burden for middle-class families, F&M is using what they have to support kids who have the ability to compete academically but cannot pay at all. They are also acting on what lots of education researchers and public school teachers know: that going to a private college is simply not real for poor kids, and you have to recruit them — not wait for them to find you.

The college introduced a free three-week summer program for rising high school seniors from low-income families. Coleman Kline, an F & M freshman whose father delivers pretzels and whose mother is a teacher’s aide, figured he’d attend a local college near his rural Pennsylvania home until he attended the program two summers ago. “I never considered Franklin & Marshall. But after spending some time on campus, I began to think that this school might really be an option,” he says.

But what has F&M learned about retaining low income students? That was the part I liked best.

Things that are invisible or annoying to middle-class people are real obstacles to staying in school if you are poor. Students whose parents have little or no access to money not only remain economically insecure when they hit a beautiful campus in the country but also, practically speaking, they become even poorer. F&M realized, for example, that they needed to reserve work-study jobs for first years rather than doling them all out in the spring to students they already knew. Lack of access to paid work (and unlike urban schools and big university towns, there often aren’t many off campus jobs around liberal arts colleges) meant that new students did not have even a little money to hang out with friends over food.

I would add to this something that the article does not mention: young women also have difficulty buying Tampax; and all students need things like toothbrushes, deodorant, soap, toothpaste, stationary supplies and laundry services. In other words, students’ basic needs other than books, clothes and food can run $30-$40 a month.

Back to food:

Breaks in the academic calendar — when dorms are shut and the college cafeteria goes dark — were also creating difficulties. For middle-class and affluent students, breaks can be a time to recharge and reconnect with family. But for low-income students who cannot afford the plane fare home, break time meant extended periods without reliable food or, sometimes, shelter. “We began to allow students to stay on campus during the breaks, and organized a van so they could get to the grocery store,” says Donnell Butler, senior associate dean for planning and analysis of student outcomes, whose office is running the audit.

F&M is probably wise to emphasize sociality and vacations, because no college wants to say that students are going hungry in the normal course of things. But hunger is one of the dirty little secrets of elite private schools.

Community colleges and public universities do recognize that students are spending more dollars than ever on tuition and fees, and many help their students sign up for SNAP. I can only imagine the wigs that would flip at a liberal arts college if someone suggested this, even though there are students at elite schools who probably should be on public assistance. Hunger on liberal arts college campuses has also been exacerbated in the last decade by cost-cutting strategies that are sold to students as “flexibility” and “choice.” Like insurance, a comprehensive college meal plan used to average the cost of feeding students across a large pool; it also used to presume that the college served three meals a day to students who ate however much they needed on a given day.

Many colleges, however, no longer directly employ food service workers. Colleges that outsource have turned to cafe-style dining where food is priced by the item. But rather than having students use money, many colleges now use some variation of a “points” system. This means that students pay for a package of  points at the beginning of the term, and then they pay for for what they eat in points. Students who eat more, pay more. It also allows the company to which the college has outsourced food services to inflate prices on key food items to guarantee themselves a profit because there is no clear correlation between points and actual money. Even if the value of points was transparent, what is a student going to do?

Creating thriftier plans where a student is paying for, say, only two meals a day, makes food one of the few places where that student can save money at the beginning of the semester when books, tuition contributions and lab fees must be paid for. However it is a savings, framed as a “choice” by the college, that is guaranteed to injure a student’s health and education, and marginalize that student socially. It also often means that rather than eating actual meals, which require many points up front, poor students scrimping on points will snack all day, or make up calories with cheap foods they can buy off campus like ramen noodles, peanut butter and large containers of sugary drinks.

The net-net? Students who have purchased cheaper meal plans eat less every day than they should, they still tend to run out of points and they are scrimping on food in the final weeks of the semester. And by the way? Those campus dining jobs were not just good union jobs, they were good jobs for students as well, allowing many who were living off campus to save money to eat before and after their shifts.

What is a little trickier is that even if poor students have a decent campus job, they still may not have money to buy cheap food off campus to make up the calories they are missing because they are contributing to their family economy. I knew numerous students over the years who sent their work study money home (or to a sibling in school somewhere else, often at a public institution that offered less financial aid.) Some shared their earnings with family because they wanted to.  Some did it because parents, who reasoned that a child receiving a financial aid package larger than the family income should redistribute some of it. I knew students who had a work study job and worked around town doing yard work, cleaning houses and babysitting because they were told to send home a certain sum every month, and the campus job alone did not meet that threshold. These students were hungry and tired, often struggling unnecessarily in the classroom because of financial and personal burdens that could bring an adult to her knees.

In other words, leaving home and going to a lush campus in the country is not the rescue narrative that liberal arts colleges want it to be. Getting a full ride to a selective school can, in fact, make a student poor in an entirely different way than he was before.  What F&M is doing is an important start to addressing the broader ramifications of being poor at college, and even raising practical questions about hunger, shelter and the social isolation of having no money is a big step. Tackling the reality of poor students’ lives on elite colleges means talking out loud about things like want, need, hunger, homelessness, jobs and not having winter clothes.

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