Christine Baker-Smith is the Managing Director and Director of Research of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. Before joining the Hope Center, she was a lecturer in Research Methodology for the Quantitative Methods in the Social Sciences M.A. program at Columbia University and an Education Policy Analyst for the NYC Independent Budget Office. She has published on adolescence and school transitions in numerous peer-reviewed journals such as Sociology of Education, Peabody Journal of Education, and Education Finance and Policy.
Imagine you’re a student who relies on their car to get to school. You have a flat tire, but you don’t have the $100 it’s going to cost to get it fixed. Now you can’t get to work, you can’t earn money for school, and you can’t go to class.
Research shows that many college students are on the brink of poverty, and it takes just a small pebble to knock them off track. One of the biggest hurdles in addressing the basic needs of students is the perception that college students live at home and enjoy family support. But the reality is many students today are on their own and a large majority of them are not 18-24 year olds. Many are working adults with children just trying to make enough money to get ahead.
“Life is hard. Just everything about life. It’s not an easy task to even get out of bed in the morning, let alone deal with the same amount of schoolwork (and in some cases, more) as before this pandemic.”-Anonymous student1
Students have been struggling with basic needs insecurity long before the COVID-19 pandemic made life even more difficult. Christine Baker-Smith is the Managing Director and Director of Research for the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, a nonprofit action research center that has been documenting students’ food insecurity, housing insecurity and homelessness for years. We sat down with Christine to find out why students are now in even greater jeopardy—and why students’ basic needs must be an urgent focus in planning for the fall.
Becoming a student-ready college
“Just six months ago, we thought a student-ready college was one that has access to daycare, support for students in terms of transportation, and on-campus access to other basic needs supports like a food pantry,” says Baker-Smith.
“A student-ready college post-COVID now needs to figure out how to provide access to benefits online. It was a big ask to have staff on campus who knew how to support students through the benefits access process. Asking them to do it online is going to be a stretch.”
The Hope Center recently surveyed more than 38,000 students across 54 American institutions to examine the impact of COVID-19 on student health and well-being. Among the findings in their #RealCollege During the Pandemic report, it was revealed that nearly three in five students were enduring basic needs insecurity due to the pandemic, with a 19 percent disparity in basic needs insecurity for Black students compared to their white counterparts. To cope, students reduced the size of their meals, skipped them entirely, or ate less than they felt they should. The extensive report confirms what students have been saying to anyone who will listen—that they are unable to concentrate on school when their well-being is at stake.
“It is difficult to expect students to continue to do school work at the same pace and to the degree we were prior to the crisis. Students need time in order to adapt so that they are able to then focus on their coursework and succeed as their best selves.” -Anonymous student1
Despite grand reopening plans for the fall, Baker-Smith wants institutions to remember that the pandemic is ongoing, and that students will still be facing vast challenges at varying rates by race for months to come.
“It could be something as small as ‘I need 50 bucks or my whole semester goes out of whack, because I can’t pay my internet bill.’ Students who have lost wages, students who have lost a number of supports are going to have to rely even more intensely on virtual learning. It’s incredibly important that these little needs are met quickly because once a student’s Internet goes off, it’s a cascading effect.”
The Hope Center has also worked closely with Swipe Out Hunger, a leading nonprofit addressing hunger amongst college students. In an effort to continue amplifying student voices, Swipe Out Hunger recently asked college students to share their remote learning experiences from the Spring 2020 semester in a survey.
“Students like me who live in very rural areas have a much harder time being able to attend live Zoom sessions with the poor internet provider services, which made finishing the semester much more difficult.” -Anonymous student1
Inspired by the hundreds of students who participated, the organization launched the Stand Up For Students campaign to task those in higher education—chancellors, presidents, and even professors—to put student voices at the center of their designs for the upcoming school year.
“We want to preach not to the choir, but to those who are making decisions, and influencing what the fall looks like. We took all of those student testimonials and came up with three recommendations,” says Tenille Metti Bowling, Director of Communications at Swipe Out Hunger.
“Our first recommendation is for campuses to embrace a culture of community. Are professors being really mindful of how they’re structuring their syllabi? Are institutions connecting students to affordable Internet services? Connecting students to mental health resources is also key as we know more and more students had to move back home to a place where they incurred serious trauma as a child. Our final recommendation is focused on creating financial support structures because many students no longer have the finances they planned on due to cancelled internships and job loss.”
These recommendations embody what the Hope Center calls a “culture of caring” on campus and illuminate what it really means to do the work of addressing student poverty at an institutional level. To raise awareness among faculty and students, the Hope Center offers a syllabus statement that faculty can include alongside class policies to remind students about campus food pantries, emergency aid programs as well as access to safe places to sleep that are available.
Becoming a student-ready professor
Creating the sense of community between peers and faculty that is so important to student success is going to be one of the biggest challenges this fall. Unfortunately, many of the conversations around what the upcoming semester will look like have focused almost exclusively on different learning modalities. Baker-Smith argues that a specific modality isn’t going to completely solve the problem of connectivity.
“Not all students are going to do well watching a presentation on Zoom. Allowing for asynchronous learning, where students watch lectures and read notes on their own time is going to be important. But I also want to acknowledge that everyone’s going to approach this a little bit differently. We don’t have all the answers in terms of what the alternative to Zoom is.”
Faculty also need to be student-focused and show more grace and lenience than they might be used to if they expect students to be successful in the fall. They can start by considering flexible grading policies that acknowledge what students’ everyday existence looks like. Baker-Smith says the Hope Center strongly supported colleagues advocating for not grading students this spring.
“Ungrading can be a very touchy topic. Faculty talked a lot about it in June and then everyone stopped talking about it. I think it’s going to fly under the radar—we’re going to forget about it and return to normal. And it’s not normal. We’re encouraging faculty to think about their grading practices as they move into the fall. Even for the most well-equipped student, the fall is a change in medium.”
The importance of teaching with compassion and care has become a much more prominent theme in discussions about college pedagogy. College students are reporting increased stress and in some cases, new barriers to mental health care. While it’s impossible to predict what will happen this fall, we can safely say that early intervention and connecting students to mental health resources will be one of the most important things for faculty to keep in mind.
“Faculty aren’t trained to be social workers, but they can make themselves aware of the support services available through their college or university,” says Baker-Smith. “Something faculty members can do right now is reach out to the Director of Student Affairs and say ‘I want to be prepared to support my students. Can you tell me about resources for students who need emergency aid? For students who need housing support and students who need food support?’ That’s a very easy place to start.”