The cost of college is too damn high

From imarksm on  Pixabay

From imarksm on Pixabay

I'm sorry to say I'll miss the #critlib chat tonight about the student loan crisis, so I wanted to write a little about it beforehand. Moderators Rebecca, James, and Kevin have put together an excellent list of questions and resources to contextualize why so many US students are in so much debt for going to college. The article Kevin added this morning about former Fox News host Greta Van Susteren suggesting that libraries are "vanity projects" and a waste of student money since "full libraries are on our smartphones" is sort of exemplary of the myopia and finger-pointing that happens in discussing the cost of college and the rate of student debt. Universities are big, complex organizations, with big, complex budgets that get spent in weird and mysterious ways. It's like that story about trying to understand an elephant by feeling just one little piece of it -- pretty hard to get a handle on the whole situation, but you know it's a big one. I suspect that most library workers -- let alone other faculty/staff at the university, or students, or the general public -- don't totally understand where funding for their services, collections, and salaries come from.

A few weeks ago, I went to hear Sara Goldrick-Rab, who is a sociologist at Temple University, talk as part of the tour for her new book, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the American Dream. She was speaking at the Human Services Resource Center on our campus, which offers a food pantry, emergency housing and food support, free laundry, and other services to students experiencing homelessness or poverty. I haven't read the book yet, but it focuses on a longitudinal study she did looking at low-income students in Wisconsin and the effect of a grant that was given out purely based on need. She talked at length about the bureaucracies that prevent low-income and first-generation students from accessing (hey-o, FAFSA changing its open date), but also about the fact that programs like Pell grants and work study have not grown to meet the higher enrollment and higher costs. (Pell was designed to COVER the cost of college, when it was first implemented. Can you imagine???) Many students feel an obligation to support their families, and many students were either working -- or looking for work, but unable to find it.

At the end, my colleague Brooke asked if Goldrick-Rab had heard of libraries supporting students in poverty. She said no, not really, and then rattled off a list of stories she'd heard of libraries actively punishing students: for taking perfume samples from magazines when they didn't have access to showers; for sleeping in the library; for trying to stay overnight. Sad, eh? Goldrick-Rab is a prominent voice on this issue, and if she hasn't heard about the good things libraries are doing, either that means we're not doing much...or we're not sharing that publicly enough. 

Our profession's core values include access, social responsibility, and the public good, so supporting students experiencing poverty -- especially because of their enrollment in our institutions -- makes perfect sense. The public services staff at my library does an awesome job of focusing on students -- letting them sleep if they're sleeping, offering referrals to campus resources if students seem to be in crisis. Many library staff and faculty bring food to class for students, or leave snacks out for student workers who clearly are not getting enough to eat. We are now working with the HSRC on a new textbook lending program, and connecting with their awesome coordinator and her student workers has led to ideas for other projects, as well. (I'm not sure if they went up yet, but I heard talk about posting stickers promoting HSRC's emergency housing help in some of the places that staff notice students sleeping overnight.) I am super proud that there is childcare available for students in our library -- my understanding is that it came in part from library staff who noticed student parents bringing their kiddos for long hours of studying.

On many campuses, libraries are one of the only places open 24 hours a day, so we see allllll the behaviors that happen on a campus, and we can choose to create a refuge for students, if we don't let misguided policies get in our way. Speaking of which, I'm hoping that some ideas for advocating at a policy/legislative level come out of this chat -- the more we can share ideas and build solidarity, the better.