I can’t make it to class because of…

…transportation issues, lack of childcare, having job shifts that overlap with class time…

When students have approached me with these struggles, I have found myself wondering the right questions to ask, what guidance to give, or how to best respond. Are these simply excuses that students have for missing class, or are they reflective of broader questions facing higher education institutions? Furthermore, what is the role of the higher education instructor in addressing needs insecurities?

Through the affordable learning movementinstitutions have begun to address the ways in which basic needs insecurities intersect with institutional initiatives for educational equity. Numerous studies reveal that basic needs insecurity exists across higher education institutions. A recent survey shows that one-third of college students who identify as needs-insecure have jobs and are receiving federal aid. These statistics indicate that, even with employment and assistance, students may remain in precarious financial positions and find themselves unable to meet basic needs. Despite grants covering the entirety of tuition for students as well as these accommodations reducing costs in technology and textbooks, students still face basic needs insecurities, such as unstable housing arrangements, food uncertainty, and limited means to purchase needed school supplies and hygiene products.

How, then, can instructors assist and approach our students without causing embarrassment or creating an inappropriate dynamic?

Know the stigmas and stereotypes

One way to help our students is to remain aware of the stigma and stereotypes surrounding needs insecurities. In 2015, PBS ran an article about Columbia student Christine Janumala, who was pictured in the text holding a sign that read “I’ve skipped meals, applied for foodstamps and dumpster-dived…this is the face of hunger.” The author of this article, Lauren Colarusso, who also wrote for the Hechinger Report, notes “It may come as a surprise that an affluent school like Columbia… has students who can’t afford to eat. But as more low-income students seek a higher education even as the cost of tuition soars, hunger is a problem that is seeping onto even the wealthiest and most elite campuses.”

Colarusso’s article received considerable backlash, to the extent that Janumala published a response on Medium, defending her precarious situation and detailing the hard work she had invested to enroll at Columbia. Nay-sayers criticized Janumala for attending an Ivy League school, for taking up a Creative Writing major, and even detailed the benefits of eating Ramen Noodles daily. These ongoing debates about affordable education open up to questions about the viability of college expenses for American families as well as the trends in higher education costs. Affordable learning expert Susan Goldrick-Rab, for example, notes the following:

A public debate is raging about the future of financial aid, with experts often trying to blame financial aid recipients, rather than the system. Data…have been used to question whether they belong in college in the first place…to question their financial literacy…to question whether the Pell Grant program is a waste. (Paying the Price, p. 12)

As Goldrick-Rab explains, students from low-income backgrounds face myriad critiques, including that the Pell Grant program is out of control and that students are reckless with these funds. (p. 67) In reality, however, Pell Grants provide a maximum $5,920 to 9 million students in the United States, according to the Federal Student Aid website of the US Department of Education. Most Pell Grant recipients do not get the full $5,920, but rather still face the expectation of family contributions to schooling expenses.

Being equipped with information about the negativity surrounding Pell Grants and skepticism associated with student need, will allow us as instructors to speak compassionately with our students. It could be helpful to include a needs statement on our syllabi to reach out to affected students. Sarah Goldrick-Rab provides a useful example of a needs statement:

Any student who has difficulty affording groceries or accessing sufficient food to eat every day, or who lacks a safe and stable place to live, and believes this may affect their performance in the course, is urged to contact the Dean of Students for support. Furthermore, please notify the professor if you are comfortable in doing so. This will enable her to provide any resources that she may possess.

Fortunately for Pell Grant recipients at OSU, a recent initiative from President Drake’s office will ensure that tuition is covered for all Pell Grant recipients beginning in 2018. This move from OSU will hopefully begin to destigmatize the Pell Grant and provide a clearer lens for viewing financial aid as a necessary and reputable part of advancing one’s education.

Provide information for your students

What do you do, then, if students do approach you for help? One useful bit of information to keep on hand are the campus and community resources available to students. You may want to compile a list to keep in your office to hand out if students do request assistance, or even to distribute to your class.

Here are some resources you could include on your list:

  • Local housing shelters and women’s shelters: Research, in fact, indicates that a number of low-income college students face homelessness or transient/insecure housing accommodations. Having a number or address to suggest could be helpful. Affordable Colleges Online’s website provides statistics about college homelessness as well a ways to locate local services.
  • Buckeye Food Alliance: The Buckeye Food Alliance is a non-profit, on-campus food pantry for OSU students. They are located in Lincoln Tower, Suite 150 and open selected hours in the week and by appointment.
  • Career Closet: The Career Closet is open to students in need of professional attire and clothing. All items are free and dressing rooms are available for students to size clothing.

Finally, the Affordable Learning Exchange hosts a wealth of information for instructors and students. In an upcoming blog post, we will discuss more about strategies for making classrooms more affordable and ways to make materials open resource.

If you are interested in talking more about affordable learning, please consider joining UCAT’s November book group to read selections from Paying the Price by Sarah Goldrick-Rab and Open by Rajiv Jhangiani and Robert Biswas-Diener.


Kelly Jo Fulkerson-Dikuua is a UCAT Graduate Consultant and a PhD Candidate in Ohio State’s Department of African American and African Studies.

Leave a Comment