College & Social Safety Nets

Yesterday afternoon a man came into my office to use the computer. That’s not unusual – I have computers in the office for students to use to process admission or registration or financial aid. I’d like to say that the other component of his visit – the one I’m about to write about – is also not unusual, except that it is. And that’s why I’m writing.

My office space is about 25 x 25. Along one wall I have three computers and a printer designated for student use. On the other side of the room, there’s a 7 ft partition that creates a cubicle for me. My desk and computer are against that wall, so that about 20 feet of space exists between me and those other computers. The man who came in was sitting over there – and all the way over at my desk, I could smell alcohol. Not lightly, but so strongly that I had to hold first my hand, and then my shirt over my nose. He couldn’t see this, of course, thanks to the cubicle. But I sat there and tried to breathe while listening to him talk to my receptionist with a serious slur and a lack of ability to really follow what she was saying. He was drunk, and had probably been drunk for days based on the odor.

I listened to him tell his story about coming to school to use the computer that day, about having nowhere to live and camping at the edges of a campground so he could use their showers. His questions centered around financial aid, as they often do for students who come in from a homeless situation. He wasn’t concerned about classes, didn’t care what he studied, and didn’t want to spend any extra time on campus. He just wanted to know he could get financial aid.

Bottom line – college, and really by college I mean financial aid, has become some kind of a social safety net for adults in this country. The solution is short-term because there are so many safeties in the system now to weed this out. Students have basically one-term to show that they actually mean to come to college. If they stop attending classes, they won’t be able to get financial aid again without jumping through hoops that almost always include paying for at least one term out of pocket. And frankly, that’s a good thing because financial aid should not be a form of social welfare. It shouldn’t, but it is. Why? Because for many of these people, there’s not much else for them. And I see them all the time, more so now that I’m working in a community college.

Shelters in this area are either spread out (making it difficult to take whatever job is offered) or are run by religious organizations that put restrictions on the folks in the shelter that are often nearly impossible to hold to. Mental health services – free ones, anyway – are difficult to find. These folks are usually trying to find some way to get a leg up, and college seems like a good start. The problem is, we are not equipped (or funded) to help students in these situations find housing, employment and help for their abuse issues. That’s not supposed to be our role, but thanks to a widespread and partially true belief that financial aid is easy money, it becomes our role because they come to us. And the mission of a community college is open access, so we can’t really turn them away for being indigent and/or addicted to something.

We do have a program at our school that can add another term to that grace period for some students. The program is called Lives in Transition, and it offers two free credited college success classes and a wealth of resource connection to its participants. The program director is a licensed therapist, and she is assisted by an amazing woman who is an alumni of the program. Not everyone who goes there is homeless or dealing with addiction. Most are just people in a place of transition – maybe divorce, maybe being laid off, maybe empty nesters – and need a helping hand to figure out how to navigate college. Those students often take flight from the program and do well. But the ones who are coming from places of homelessness and serious mental health issues? It’s harder for them because we simply do not, as I’ve already said, have the funding or staffing to help them.

Coming back to my student, I found myself first uncomfortable and even a little annoyed. Why was he here when he so obviously had other issues that needed to be taken care of first? Didn’t he know that transcripts are created when you sign up for a class and don’t show? Bad grades stay with you! How was he going to handle college classes when he couldn’t make it here sober? But the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how those things really don’t matter when you need a place to sleep and food to eat. And something to numb the pain. No, college is not a social safety net, nor should it be. But there should be something more than what there is.

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