Raising Awareness of Poverty on College Campuses

Raising Awareness of Poverty on College Campuses

APA President and Counseling Psychologist Dr. Rosie Phillips Davis’s Deep Poverty Initiative included a 5-week challenge designed to raise awareness about the broad psychological impacts of poverty in the U.S. As a professor with clinical expertise in college student wellbeing, I joined this initiative and spent much of the five weeks reflecting on how poverty exists, but is often suffered in silence, on college campuses.

One of the Poverty Challenge activities was to play the game, Spent. In the game, I:

  • Was asked to move through a series of realistic, common scenarios experienced by folks in poverty.
  • Could choose from (realistically limited) options how to approach each obstacle.
  • When faced with a shortage of cash for rent, the option I selected was to ask friends and family for help.
  • The game automatically linked to my Facebook and invited me to post a status update asking for financial assistance.

I am ashamed to say my heart raced and I immediately closed the browser window. In that moment, I though What a visceral response to a game! I immediately felt a pressure to explain myself – to justify a hypothetical request for help.

Upon unpacking this, I began to wonder, Does this mean I expect folks in poverty need to explain themselves when asking for assistance? I know that’s not how I function in clinical work. The only thing I want my students to explain to me is:

  • Why their homework is late.
  • Why they are on social media in my class.
  • How Snapchat works.

My students should never have to justify their financial status or access to resources to me. No student should.

A quick google scholar search indicates, anecdotally at least, that much of the literature on college and poverty centers on ‘college preparedness’ rather than college retention, success, and graduation. Moreover, there are government-supported programs for high-schoolers experiencing poverty, but these programs are rare once students enter college (Hallett, 2010). This again emphasizes the point that it’s easy to ignore visible signs of student poverty on campus. It also suggests a striking assumption that U.S. culture holds: Children in poverty are a tragedy, but when those children become (legal) adults, poverty is their fault.

Dr. Melissa Pearrow, an associate professor of counseling and school psychology at University of Massachusetts Boston, and her research team reported the following statistics in their investigation of college student poverty experiences (Silva, Kleinert, Sheppard, Cantrell, Freeman-Coppadge, Tsoy, Roberts, & Pearrow, 2017):

  • About 5% of college students experienced homelessness while attending college
  • About one-fifth of students reported “sometimes” worrying about having money for food, skipping meals, and an inability to eat balanced meals.

The frightening brilliance of how poverty is ignored in settings of privilege, like a university, is that cultural norms encourage students in poverty to stay silent about their needs and struggles. For example:

  • Culturally persistent beliefs that poor adults are to be blamed for their status.
  • Asking for help is seen as shameful.
  • Acknowledging that someone could benefit from aid requires acknowledging that poverty is a community issue.
  • Stopping dialogue allows monolithic perceptions of poor students to continue.

As Harvard Sociologist Tony Jack notes, if you never hear the diverse and intersectional experiences around being poor on campus, it’s easy to relegate all poor students to the same stereotypic assumptions.

The final week of the Poverty Challenge encourages participants to identify organizations or systems to work with in order to reduce poverty and poverty-related issues, such as systematic silencing of folks in poverty. I confess when I worked through this module I felt overwhelmed. I thought, How does one tackle poverty?

The challenge provides several resources for teachers (as well as clinicians and researchers). Here are a couple steps teachers can take:

  • Integrate discussions of poverty into coursework, so that students are exposed to theories and research demonstrating poverty is a community and systems-level issue. I added Dr. Phillips Davis’s TEDTalk on her experiences of child poverty to my Child Development course.
  • Look into alternative, open-access texts and readings for students instead of textbooks.
  • Keep a running list of community resources in visible spots in your department suite or office. I’ve got a pile of granola bars with a sign that says, “Student Fuel” and pamphlets for our campus food pantry next to it. Even if students do not need the food pantry, it makes visible the fact that we have a pantry on campus and sends the signal that they have peers from all financial categories in their midst.
  • Reflect, reflect, reflect. You’ll notice in my opening paragraphs that I noted students need to explain absences to me. Sure, this is true. It’s also true that classroom behaviors (or a lack of behavior, if they aren’t in your class that day) are tied to students’ experiences (transportation difficulties, extra shifts at work, childcare issues, chronic illness…). Instead of drawing conclusions that chronic absences mean a student does not care, reflection and openness to dialogues with students (if they are comfortable and ready) can point to other explanations.

Ultimately, each of these small actions sends a message acknowledging poverty as a lived experience of students (and faculty and staff). We should work to make poverty more visible on college campuses, but not normalize poverty. Poverty exists and people in poverty contribute to communities as much as they benefit from community assistance. What a campus makes visible, we can talk about. If we are complicit with the system and keep it hidden, we stop the dialogue before it starts.


Stephanie Winkeljohn Black, Ph.D. is a counseling psychologist and assistant professor at Penn State Harrisburg. 



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