#RealCollege: Where are the Four-Year Institutions?

Late last week, I had the opportunity to participate in #RealCollege, a convening hosted by the Wisconsin Hope Lab to jumpstart the conversation about housing and food insecurity in undergraduate students. For me, this opportunity was a bit outside my lane. I regularly attend conferences for housing and residence life professionals in which we discuss best practices of on-campus housing, from living-learning programs to efficiency in business operations. When Clare Cady, one of the people I most admire in the world of college and university administration, mentioned the convening to me in early March, I knew I needed to attend.

For the past year, I have passionately presented, written, and spoken about social justice in housing and residence life. I have poked the bear, so to speak, about the issues our business operations and policies create. Does a differential pricing scaffold for housing create a caste system within housing? Are we mindful of potential homophily? Do meal plans as they currently exist meet the needs of our students? How do our residency requirement appeal processes best serve students without causing them to feel like they are on trial for their financial situation?

The convening felt like a natural extension of these conversations, taking the topics and pushing them a step farther. I can provide emergency housing on campus for students in need. But what happens if that student has a dependent child and I can’t provide housing for them? Our campus is now fully open for fall, winter, and spring breaks. But at the summer break, I have limited bed spaces to work with and demand that often exceeds supply. What other resources can I use to make sure students are housed safely? Our residential population is required as part of their housing contracts to have meal plans. What happens during the summer if they are returning to a home in a food desert? Our institution is seated in an extremely affluent area. What resources are there within reasonable distance for students? And how do we get them to those resources when distance becomes a barrier to access?

The conversations at the two-day convening were fruitful. I found they often centered on what community colleges are able to do for their students with amazing examples shared by professionals from those campuses. There was a noticeable lack of representation of student affairs practitioners from four year institutions. As the second day drew to a close, I realized that the issue isn’t that those schools don’t care about their students — it’s that professionals at those institutions may have no idea these issues exist and persist. Or, in some cases, they may even believe those issues are someone else’s issues to handle, not realizing the power of being able to recognize indicators and make connections to resources for students. A powerful example of this that came up during the convening was emergency aid and how students can access it. Does your campus provide emergency grants to students? Do you know the parameters for students to qualify? Do you know how a student can make a request? If the answer to any of those questions is no, how many missed opportunities do you have to assist a student for whom $300 to cover a utility bill might mean the difference between dropping out or persisting at the institution?

Life on campus looks and feels a lot like an admissions brochure when you choose to only see that view — glossy, smiling, and emblazoned with school logos. When the brochure is closed, though, what becomes of those students? Across the country, my housing and residence life colleagues are breathing a sigh of relief about closing their residence halls and transitioning to the quieter times of summer. But for students without a safe place to go, summer may be terrifying. Do we notice that in our end of the year celebrations? Do we notice that some students are less likely to celebrate, are becoming withdrawn from social groups?

On the first day of the convening, I tweeted wondering how I can push this conversation with my colleagues at other institutions? And while I don’t have a definitive answer, I have the beginning of a plan to write, present, and speak more.

Starting now.

Join the conversation and view resources at #RealCollege.