Join Eddy Conroy and Jesse Stommel for a live discussion on 30 July 2020 at 6pm EDT (UTC -4). Register here.

Students were struggling before the pandemic, but the last several months have accelerated a conversation that has been going on for years -- about the need to talk frankly about students’ basic needs -- about the need for policy work aimed at making college accessible for marginalized students -- about the policy failures that got us to this place -- about the ways our institutions, our disciplines, and our pedagogies need to change to include students previously shut out of education.

One of the things we talk about a lot at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, where Eddy works (and where Jesse is affiliate faculty), is the idea of #RealCollege students, what does that mean, and how does it play into this idea of being a “student ready teacher”. The idea of #RealCollege is that the majority of students no longer look like the stereotype of students in popular culture and psyche. That is, 18-22 years old, just left home, supported by their family and able to have a “college experience”. The reality is that most students are now older than that, have children of their own, do not have parental support… the list could go on and on. For too long we have referred to these students as “non-traditional” but if the majority of students are “non-traditional”, then we need a new way to think about them; they are now more traditional than the stereotype of students. #RealCollege recognizes those lived realities of students today, the challenges they face and overcome on a daily basis.

So why should this matter to us as educators, instructional designers, etc.? Well, it does not have to, but it should; we suspect you would not be reading this if it did not matter to you, and matter deeply. It is impossible to support our students and help them learn if we don’t know at least something about what their everyday existence looks like; we have to recognize that they are humans before they are students. “Maslow before Bloom” has been uttered so many times as to be cliché in the extreme, but clichés often hold powerful truths. And Jesse would argue that we shift our thinking toward Maslow instead of Bloom.

The decision to address the lived reality of students is both a compassionate one but also a pedagogical one. It is simply not logical to expect “attention” or “academic success” without at least acknowledging students’ basic needs, especially in the midst of a pandemic which is leaving more and more students in a place of acute trauma.

Our students’ reality might be that they did not eat enough last night, have a safe place to sleep, a computer to work on or a quiet place to study, and that is why they just fell asleep in our class for the third time in four weeks. If they are not able to turn their camera on during a Zoom session, it may be because they do not have high-speed internet access or because they have no secure place, no home, from which to work. The data from the #RealCollege survey tells us that 39% of students surveyed are food insecure, and 17% are homeless. We suspect those numbers might be lower than reality, given who has the time and ability to respond to surveys. Our latest survey, administered during the pandemic, shows the huge disparity in these challenges, with a 19% disparity in basic needs insecurity for Black students compared to White students. Given the obstacles students face in getting enough financial support, this is far from surprising. 78% of full time students at public four year institutions had a gap of $14,400 between official college costs and their financial need. Given that we know official cost of attendance estimates are divorced from reality, those numbers should be terrifying. And those are the students who make it through the financial aid process (far from guaranteed), and do not even consider DACA students, who are cut off from all federal financial aid, with varying access to state aid depending on where they live. When taken in totality, the entire financial aid system is at a breaking point, straining to provide even the most basic support to students and families dependent on it.

The student without the book in our class, who is struggling to keep up with the work? We may not know that they gave their entire financial aid refund to their family, so that their younger siblings would eat well. Now they cannot afford to pay for housing, books, or anything else. Or maybe it is the student who is always leaving class early, and eventually we call them on it, only to find out that they keep leaving early because they cannot afford to miss a shift at their job (or even their second job).

None of these examples are intended to make anyone feel guilty, they are simply reality, they are the students Eddy worked with as a financial aid counselor, the students in the Hope Center surveys, and the students in all of our classes. Now we have to figure out how to support those students in a system that often fails them -- and us.

As Sara Goldrick-Rab and Jesse wrote, “This is not a theoretical exercise — it is a practical one.” Our pedagogical approaches need to be directly influenced by what we know of our students, and also by what we don’t yet know. We need to stop writing inflexible policies for hypothetical students. In fact, we should carefully read everything we communicate to students in advance of a course to be sure we aren’t making assumptions about who they are before meeting them. We start by asking who education is for, and if the answer is “students,” then how do we listen for their voices and let that influence our approach. For example, Jesse often does an exercise with teachers, in which we close-read our syllabi, particularly the first words. How does an acknowledgment of the struggles students face change our policies? Is there an implicit “because I said so” built in? How does this center the experience of the teacher when we should be working to center the experience of students, particularly our most marginalized students.

We must find more ways, with our pedagogies and policies, to bring students fully into the conversation about their own education and to recognize the immense barriers they face just to be sitting in front of us. This work starts by asking hard questions before seeking answers:

  • Who is education for? What is the function of education? What significant obstacles do we face in our work?
  • How must we approach our pedagogies differently in the face of the increasing precarity of both faculty members and students?
  • How do we balance institutional pressures and pedagogical choices?
  • What does change look like? What small steps can we take? How do we change ideas (and ideals) into action? What is the importance of activism, work, hope?
  • What one thing can we do tomorrow to make change at our institutions, in our classrooms, for #RealCollege students?

#RealCollege and Student Realities

The deck below was created by Eddy to provide context for the #RealCollege movement. (You can also click here to view the slides and notes in a new window.) It provides an overview of the oft-overlooked challenges that students face every day before they walk into our classrooms. Hopefully, it can operate as a guide in understanding why we have to be ready for the students that we have, along with all the attendant challenges they arrive to class with.

The presentation contains data points, ruminations and exercises to explore how you could live as a #RealCollege student. I hope it sparks interest and compassion. I also hope it sparks questions.