Over the next few weeks, professors will present millions of students with a syllabus, a guide to their class that typically features books and other materials students will have to study to pass. But this year, a growing number of professors are including some other things they hope will help students succeed: information for students who are struggling to find housing or food.
The movement toward adding this so-called basic needs language was sparked by a tweet earlier this month from Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University with more than 22,000 Twitter followers. Goldrick-Rab has made a career of chronicling the financial barriers that keep students from persisting in college and she’s also worked to develop policies that could help this group.
But as Goldrick-Rab was preparing her materials for the fall semester, she began to think that there was a discrepancy between what she planned to teach her students, many of whom are studying to work in student affairs at colleges,and their experience. “I’m telling them we’re going to talk about basic needs and I don’t say anything about their basic needs,” she said.
So Goldrick-Rab came up with a few sentences to add to her syllabus urging students facing food or housing challenges that may affect their academic performance to seek out the school’s dean of students and notify Goldrick-Rab herself. “I’m trying to signal to the students that I care about this stuff and I want to know about it if it’s impeding your learning,” she said.
Shortly after she came up with the language, it began spreading; her school’s faculty union sent it around to its members and a blog post Goldrick-Rab wrote on the topicwent as viral as a blog post about higher education policy could go. Other educators responded by saying they planned to incorporate similar language into their syllabi.
The new challenges students face
The spread of the basic needs statement comes as college administrators, policy makers and the general public are becoming more aware of the challenges college students face while in school. With a college degree becoming increasingly necessary to compete in the workforce over the past several years, more students from a wider range of economic backgrounds are attending school. During the same period, the cost of college went up.
All of that has combined to create a situation where a large share of college students find themselves in precarious economic circumstances. Research indicates that roughly half of community college students struggle to find housing and an even larger share can’t get regular access to healthy food.
“This is worse than it’s ever been,” said Sara Ducey, the collegewide chair of integrative studies and a professor of nutrition and food at Montgomery College, a community college in Maryland.
Colleges across the country have been adding food pantries and other resources over the past several years to help students cope.
But often, students don’t know about what’s available and even when they do, they may be embarrassed to seek these resources out. That’s where the basic needs language comes in. Supporters say it both helps students identify assistance and reduces the stigma that may be associated with using it.
Derek Houston, a professor of educational leadership and policy studies the University of Oklahoma, said he’s always tried to encourage students to be open with him about any challenges they might face. Houston said he’ll often share with them that he has a learning disability as a way to show his students that they too can make it through school even if they have a similar issue. Houston said he sees the basic needs language as sending a similar message and so he’s including it in his syllabus this year.
“I viewed it as an opportunity to be even more inclusive,” he said.
It appears Houston is one of many educators also taking the opportunity. As of last week, 207 instructors answered a survey about the basic needs language created by Goldrick-Rab. Of those, about 72% said they adopted the language for their syllabus and 6% said they planned to next year, Goldrick-Rab said.
From textbooks to food pantries
Robin DeRosa, the chair of the Interdisciplinary Studies program at Plymouth State University, said adding the basic needs language is part of a broader understanding she’s reached over the past several years that student success is about more than just what happens inside the classroom. The first barrier DeRosa recognized was the high cost of textbooks and so she started advocating for faculty to use “open textbooks,” or openly licensed sources that can be found for free online.
“Once you start caring about textbooks it’s really a short hop to start caring about a lot of other things as well,” she said. DeRosa worked with another colleague to set up a food pantry in her department. She’s also working on other initiatives, including a babysitting co-op for students who need emergency child care to attend class.
Some schools have been thinking about these issues for years. Montgomery College has systematized the food pantries and other resources it offers to students, said Ducey, but it’s still not enough. Adding the note to her syllabus can help students locate the resources they need across their campus system, which stretches over a relatively large and traffic-heavy region, Ducey said. With the support of the student affairs department at the school, Ducey sent out an email to the school’s faculty to let them know about the language.
Ducey said she’s seen the way these challenges can impact students’ performance firsthand. She remembers one student who told her she couldn’t complete an assignment requiring that she keep a food journal because she wasn’t eating regularly. Instead, the student, who was homeless, prioritized the dietary needs of her two children. Ultimately, the student disappeared from the class, Ducey said.
“It’s just a very real part of why some students don’t succeed,” she said. “They’re too hungry, they’re too tired from working two jobs.”
Anti-poverty course design
Several years ago, Jack Norton, a history instructor at Normandale Community College in Bloomington, Minn., came to the realization that poverty was putting some of his students on an unequal playing field. So he began creating what he calls an “anti-poverty course design,” in an effort to ensure that a student’s financial circumstances wouldn’t hold them back.
That means using only open and free educational resources, but it also means including a map on his syllabus of places where students can access the internet for free as well as a note about resources on campus, like food pantries or partnerships with local homeless shelters.
“Most of the time people think of syllabi as ‘these are the books we’re going to read,’ they’re not thinking about it as ‘is there a Starbucks down the street where you can get free internet?’” he said. “If that’s the difference between a student passing the class and not, that’s huge.”
Since he began his quest about five years ago, other faculty members have been largely receptive, Norton said. Still, he finds some hesitancy from instructors who don’t necessarily think of it as their job to help students in this way. Goldrick-Rab said she’s faced some similar resistance to her basic needs statement, but many professors have also begun to view offering this kind of help as part of their role as educators.
“When folks say, ‘I don’t want to be a counselor,’ I say: ‘I’m not asking you to be,’” Norton said, noting that students may struggle in his course not because the history is too hard, but because of pressures outside the classroom. “I’ve got 180 students. I’m not going to solve their problems, but I can give them resources to at least help them make a go of it.”