How can colleges better support students living ‘in poverty’s long shadow’?

When low-income college students come to campus, they often bring family and community responsibilities with them—psychological and financial burdens that can can lead to stress and isolation. In an essay for The New York Times, Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the author of The Privileged Poor: How Elite Colleges Are Failing Disadvantaged Students, makes the case for providing more counseling, financial, and basic needs resources to low-income and first-generation college students. Drawing from his own experiences as a first-generation Amherst College student from a low-income family, Jack encourages college administrators to consider these less-visible hurdles and assist students throughout their college careers.

Easing psychological burdens

During his time at Amherst, Jack often received phone calls from his family about acts of violence back home. “My family didn’t understand how disruptive those calls could be,” he writes. “Neither did I, really.” Noting the guilt and worry that results from hearing about tumult but not being there to help, Jack calls on colleges to invest in counseling services dedicated to first-generation, low-income students’ unique needs. “Even if they make it to dorms on leafy-green campuses, disadvantaged students still live in poverty’s long shadow,” says Jack. “They worry about those back home just as much as those back home worry about them.”

Related: Prioritizing inclusion, colleges diversify, coordinate mental health services >

Supporting financial needs beyond the student experience

Another responsibility Jack juggled during college was the role of financial provider. During lean times, his family would call him, asking for assistance paying medical or utility bills. At one point, Jack had four jobs, in addition to a full course load, violating work-study rules. Jack says university financial aid officers must recognize when, and why, students find themselves with that sort of split focus—and find new ways to support them. “The full weight of my responsibilities, even the most quotidian ones, was often as invisible to me as it was to my adviser and financial-aid officer,” he writes.

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Addressing food insecurity

School breaks were particularly challenging. “Amherst felt a little colder—or perhaps just lonelier—without the money to return home for spring break like so many of my peers,” says Jack. After resorting to eating from vending machines during his first year, Jack later planned ahead for “hungry days” when dining halls were closed; he also successfully campaigned for the school to provide access to and funds for a coffee shop over spring break, an arrangement that later expanded.

Jack advocates for schools to take “practical and immediate steps” to address food insecurity, such as creating food pantries, expanding dining options during breaks, and creating meal-share programs where students can donate unused dining credits to their peers.

Related: Georgetown University launching on-campus food pantry >

Providing a ‘deeply human touch’

Supporting first-generation and low-income students means more than providing tuition, room, and board, Jack writes. “It requires colleges and universities to question what they take for granted, about their students and about the institutions themselves. And to do this, they’ll need more than an algorithm. What’s needed is a deeply human touch.

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