One student is facing eviction from her apartment with her family. Another will have his electricity turned off at 5 p.m. Another, with just a few credits left to complete his degree, cannot afford tuition for the final semester. Every week, I am reminded of the challenges students face as they aspire to earn their college education.
I sit before a stack of student emergency funding requests awaiting my signature. I recognize the names on the applications. She just received an honor at a celebration of academic achievement; he was leading a campus event; the other recently came to my office with suggestions to improve one of our programs.
It’s common to think that college campuses are like a tale of two cities—the high achieving and engaged students fully involved with all that college offers, and those who struggle to get by, too burdened by financial and family encumbrances to fully participate in college life. The truth is that, increasingly, these students are one and the same. Your national high point scorer in volleyball is an undocumented student. Your student body president is deciding between eating that day and paying for a Metrocard to get to school. The 4.0 scholar spends so much time in the library, not because they are studious, but because they are homeless.
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) reported that there are 58,000 homeless college students in America. Countless more are hungry. A recent survey at my own institution in Manhattan revealed that 13% of our students had gone hungry at least one day in the last eight weeks because they couldn’t afford food.
But there’s a good story here, too. We have spent decades developing access programs. Now, the students that we‘ve been working to get into college are coming in droves. According to a recent report from the Southern Education Foundation, 51% of college-bound high school students are from low-income families.
The impact on our campuses is profound. We are in territory that is often handled by social service agencies. Greater access to education for all comes with the need to ramp up assistance to ensure success. Many of us are moving quickly to implement food pantries, emergency funding, legal services, and support for homeless, foster, and undocumented students. But these services only move students to the bottom of Maslow’s famous pyramid. Access means more than getting into college or even graduating. It means moving students higher up the pyramid toward a sense of belonging and ultimately fulfillment of their potential. Access includes internships, study abroad, research with faculty, and graduate exam preparation. These provide students with the essential skills and experiences they need to fully compete with their peers in the workplace.
As I sit at my desk, looking down at these requests for funding, I realize the power of my signature. Once a first generation student myself, I remember the sacrifices my parents had to make so I could attend college. Still, their efforts weren’t enough to support me to participate fully in my college experience. So I missed the chance of an unpaid internship or to perform in the campus orchestra because I was too busy working three jobs to make ends meet. Often I had to combat the belief that I was less than my peers because despite my ability to compete academically, I couldn’t participate in the experiences they were having. So I sign these requests with pleasure, realizing that with a little more support these students will rise to their greatest potential.
At least at public institutions like mine, the students who bring so much need are also the students that we need so much. At unprecedented rates, they are involving themselves in student activities and athletics; they are campus leaders and change agents. They make our campuses the vibrant, places of promise, curiosity, and hope that we love. Our task is to meet these students where they are, through services that reduce the barriers and ensure access to the experiences that allow them to soar.