An Garagiola | Editor
The American economy is changing. There is an increasing gap between those who have resources and those who do not. More and more, education is the vehicle out of poverty. Century College, while still below the national average has seen a higher-than-average jump in the percentage of students who qualify for financial aid. The college is currently discussing how to better meet the needs of these students.
The first in this two-part series introduces the problem, and follows faculty and staff to Poverty Institute.
A Changing Student Population Challenges Educators
A middle-aged mother of two from suburban America, Cindy (name changed to protect student’s identity) is not a traditional college student. She was a radiologic technician for 22 years before losing her job in 2010, during the downsizing of the Great Recession.
Unable to find employment, she decided to go back to school. Like many non-traditional students she struggled to support her family while pursuing a brighter future. Cindy went through bankruptcy, nearly losing her home. It was hard to feed her kids. She was unable to afford the extras they asked for, like apples.
Once, in a moment of starvation and desperation, Cindy ate the only edible thing she could find—dog treats—while crying in Century’s parking lot.
Despite the challenges, she beat the odds. Cindy now has her Associates Degree in Liberal Arts and a certificate in Communication. She will be graduating this fall with an AS in an individualized rad-tech study program. She has found a great job and managed to save her house from foreclosure.
Cindy represents a fast growing demographic. She is one of the 79 percent of U.S. students struggling through college with the help of financial aid.
She will also graduate with about $30,000 in student loan debt, and she is not alone. This is the average amount of debt for graduates in Minnesota according to The Project for Student Debt.
Cindy, like many students who have no parents to fund their education, depended on financial aid and her job as a student ambassador not only to stay in school, but also to support her family. “Without Pell grants and FAFSA, I would not have been able to go to school,” she says.
Between 2007 and 2012, the percentage of students receiving some form of aid rose by 15 percent nationwide.
At Century College, the percentage of students who qualify for PELL grants has doubled.
Many college professionals come from stable, middle-class backgrounds where college is a right, not a privilege. Many have never gone without food. For some, there is a disconnect; they don’t understand where students like Cindy are coming from.
Don Long, Century’s Director of Resource Development, says, “I’m just guessing, but I’d say ninety to ninety-five percent of people that work here are not struggling in poverty, where at least 50 percent of our students are. So, can we really appreciate what that experience is like for them, and how do we do that?”
Century turned to Donna Beegle, an internationally renowned expert on poverty, for help in responding to a rapidly changing student body. Beegle is the president of Communication Across Barriers. She educates professionals about poverty. One of her events, Poverty Institute, offers professionals a chance to develop the tools and awareness to understand poverty.
Michele Jersak, a counselor and advisor at Century, explains why it is important to bring Beegle’s message to campus. “Our institutions in general sort of expect everybody to come with middle class values, middle class stability, and middle class know-how, and then students get punished when they don’t know the answers to things like financial aid forms,” she says.
A first-generation college student, Jersak knows the difficulty of navigating print culture for the first time. “I didn’t really have the words to explain why I struggled. I just knew that every day I was at the university I wanted to drop out,” she recalls.
Jersak first learned of Communication Across Barriers in 2012 at a conference held by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. She knew at once that this was exactly what Century needed to connect with their struggling students. “So I’m listening to this presenter,” says Jersak, “and as she’s talking, all these things are coming in, and my big epiphany was like, wow!
“I kept saying, ‘We’ve got to get this speaker on campus, we’ve got to do this work,’” Jersak says.
It took about six months to find others who agreed with her. “A committee formed, called Century in the Community, that spring. And that really allowed it to be not just my passion, but to give it a place within the institution, to help move things forward,” she says.
Jersak went on to become a poverty coach, training more than 60 faculty and staff members to change their way of thinking and interacting with students, especially those in crisis, to walk beside them, work through forms, and take time to contextualize their students’ experiences.
The Educators Attend Poverty Institute
Recently, Jersak coordinated a Poverty Institute event, an intense two-day crash-course that teaches the basics of communicating with people from different socio-economic statuses. Hundreds of people, including MnSCU employees, K-12 educators, lawyers, non-profit organizations, and others who are fighting poverty on the front lines throughout the Midwest attended the event last October at Metro State University in St. Paul.
At the workshop, Beegle urges Institute attendees to get to know their students personally, and to search for the context behind excuses for missing assignments or classes. Is the student experiencing a crisis? Homeless? Hungry? Having other financial difficulties or home problems that demand the energy that they would otherwise devote to the course?
Scott Guenther, an English instructor at Century, has attended several of Beegle’s events. He keeps going because, “We have to understand that sometimes, for our students to be successful, we need to help them with the issues that poverty brings up. When you’re worried about paychecks, and housing, and how you’re going to take care of your kids, those things are more important than school.
“We have to help them find solutions to those things so they can be successful in school. If we don’t, we’re going to have a growing number of students who don’t succeed due to the barriers of poverty,” he says
Beegle uses her life experience growing up in generational, migrant labor poverty along with straight talk and hard facts, and then reinforces it with role-playing activities to drive home her message.
One of the most memorable activities is the lawn event.
Many people take living in the same home, or attending the same school throughout their childhood for granted. In truth, these are things many kids don’t get to experience. This activity forces participants to rethink things like that. Everyone starts off at the same place. Then, some can move forward, according to criteria that denote privilege, such as, “Take a step forward if your family owned the house you grew up in” and “Take a step forward if you had grandparents that were a part of your life.” Others are forced to step back by things such as, “Take a step back if anyone in your family was ever arrested for shoplifting,” and “Take two steps back if your parents did not graduate from high school.”
This uncomfortable lesson in unearned privilege goes on for about 20 minutes, until some people are far ahead of the crowd, and others are way behind, with a big group lumped in the middle.
“I think there’s guilt for people who end up in front,” says Guenther. “And that guilt comes because they know it’s nothing that they’ve done to earn it.”
The prevailing view in the United States is that education is available and accessible to everyone who puts forth enough effort. That hard work will eventually lead to success. This is referred to as the bootstraps mentality. Beegle explains that though students from different socio-economic classes may be equally intelligent, the student raised in a household with a higher income has a better chance of succeeding based solely on their life experiences. Middle class children are taught different life skills than those who were raised in poverty, and that gives them a distinct edge in life.
By the time kids make it to college, those who grew up in middle class homes are often way ahead of low-income students.
In the next issue of The Century Times, read about Day 2 at Poverty Institute, when President Ron Anderson and others must wear the shoes of poverty to such places as the Ramsey County Department of Health and Human Service, and how the college is using this knowledge to better serve students.