If Access Is Important To You… Read This

Clare Cady

February 19, 2016

It’s not sexy, but damn, is it important.

Have I gotten your attention? Good.

Student Affairs critique time (again). Today my call to action consists of a basic lesson I learned in elementary school. It was an election year, and our teachers were helping us to understand the political process and the importance of a change in leadership in our country (the sitting president was done with two terms). We talked about the branches of government, how voting works, and why people might choose one person to vote for rather than another. The we learned about the two people who were running for president. The whole thing culminated in a rally where we all were allowed to color in a sign that declared who we would want to vote for. They were donkeys and elephants...I picked an elephant (because, elephants), and went out into the brisk New York day to parade around the school grounds.

It must have been adorable - a pack of second graders in heavy coats and scarves waving crayoned signs like we were the top rows at the political conventions...we’re happy they are here, but we’re not sure they are camera-ready. I’d write the whole thing off as ridiculous if it didn’t still stand in my childhood memories as a truly educational moment. Our teachers showed me that day one of the amazing privileges of being a U.S. citizen - that we get to participate in the political process (at least in theory, which is about as much as white middle-class second grader can grasp in that kind of moment).

Now, I do maintain that I was a strange little kid, who grew up to be a strange big kid, who is still growing up to be a strange adult. That said, I also maintain that the lesson I learned on that day is remarkably salient, particularly as I watch primary debates and seek to pick not which animal I like best, but which candidate. The lesson is that it matters that I participate.

Fast-forward from second grade to second year in graduate school (or was it first year…). I took Higher Ed Law, and HATED it. Here is a taste of my inner monologue: “Why do I need to know this? Ok, I suppose that whole Title IX thing might have some bearing on my practice, but really who knows? It’s just the women’s sports law...the reason I got to play softball. That’s pretty cool, but probably not going to impact my life as a career housing professional. Just gotta read enough and talk enough in this class to get my A and move on to more important things...like what door decs I am going to make for Spring Semester.”

I’d love to say that my elementary school lessons translated to savvy thought as an adult, but it didn’t. For a lot of Student Affairs Professionals, particularly young professionals, thinking about law and policy seems far from the realities of dealing with student issues, managing crisis, and growing engaging leaders. Most of our CSSA/HESA (or whatever other acronym) curriculum exists in an apolitical vacuum. Who has time to think about the legislative process when they are memorizing the seven vectors, or wrangling excel spreadsheets for a budget and finance course? My first critique here is of how we are teaching in our field. By relegating policy to Higher Ed Law courses (IF they actually touch on anything other than memorizing Bakke, the Buckley Amendment, and Clery) teaches us that while we need to know the laws that govern our work, we don’t have agency and are unable to shape those laws. We also learn that law and policy are for our lawyers, not for us.

And if you are me, you learn that this stuff is boring compared to the fun work of serving students, so it’s best to avoid it once the grade is handed out.

So how does this pertain to the work of the Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education KC? That brings me to myself today, in the work I am doing to support low-income students in their pursuit of a college degree. I spent nearly five years growing and developing a program at Oregon State University that sits on the intersection of higher ed and human services. Now I serve colleges as they develop similar programs. The focus is to move beyond access for low-income students to engaged support by the institution that promotes persistence. For me, it means connecting students with additional resources - government benefits, financial aid, tax refunds, that put money in their pockets so they can cover the cost of school and life.

In doing this I have realized that there is no focus on access (for any student population) without policy. Think about it. The people who are least likely to access higher education are unable to do so because of institutional racism and class oppression. Critical race theory has its roots in law for a reason. These issues are systemic, and they require a systemic response. That’s why we have affirmative action law and policy. It’s a reaction to institutional racial bias that has decreased access points for people of color in higher education.

So then, don’t we have an amazing systemic response to economic barriers in higher education, and don’t we call it financial aid? Isn’t this system of grants a loans specifically designed to increase access for low-income students? Well...yes, and no. Economic assistance programs (including welfare, GI bills, and financial aid) have historically been developed to uphold class privilege (and white privilege). If you want to read an amazing book that details this, I highly recommend “Putting Poor People to Work” (2006) by Shaw, Goldrick-Rab, Mazzeo, and Jacobs. One of my big takeaways from the book is that once welfare policies begin to impact less desireable populations (read, non-white and low-income) the policies are changed. As community colleges have made higher education more accessible over all (the largest group receiving Pell are at community colleges), and more and more it is necessary to have a college degree or credential to survive economically, lower income families have utilized Pell and other forms of financial aid to send themselves or their children to college. These students and families are also much more likely to be non-white and first generation. While these numbers have been going up, financial aid has been cut, and the number of loans vs. grants has increased.

And yes, there has been outrage over this (as well as the rising cost of college, which is important also to note). Aid has been cut so much that even the families who it fully bolstered (middle income) are feeling the pinch. That is why we are seeing media coverage on student debt, decreased financial aid, and rising college costs - not because low-income families and students are not able to access, but that middle income (mostly white) families and students can’t. In my work running and supporting campus food pantries I am often asked by the media to produce a student who “we would not think would need to use a campus pantry” for an interview. What they are asking is for a white, middle class student, though they will not say that outright. I once asked a reporter from a highly visible news source is that is what he meant, and he laughed and said, “yeah, I suppose that is right.” What’s going to make people care? White kids from “good homes” in crisis.

Now I will admit that I can’t prove any form of causality here (this is an opinion blog, in case you could not tell), but place this within the historic frameworks of affirmative action law and the history of welfare in the US, and it starts to seem like a pattern. If nothing else I can see how critically important it is to understand law and policy in higher education if I care at all about social, economic, and human justice. I take it as part of my responsibility as a professional working within higher education to understand not just the buzzword laws like Bakke, Buckley, Clery. Yes, these are very important laws that impact our practice and our students, but they are not the only ones. Do you know what is going on with the Higher Education Act? How about S.108 - the Financial Aid Simplification and Transparency Act? These laws impact our students and the future of our profession. Imagine what it would look like we we all paid attention, and used our voice and or vote to drive decision-makers’ choices. Does it look sexier to you now? Even if it doesn’t, you should still take the time to learn.

At minimum you can start here in NASPA: https://www.naspa.org/constituent-groups/groups/public-policy-division

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Clare Cady is the Senior Program Officer for National College Programs at Single Stop USA. She is also the Director and Co-Founder of the College and University Food Bank Alliance and the Founder and Chair of the NASPA SCIHE Knowledge Community. 

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