Class is in Session: Higher Education Access and the Feminization of Poverty

Class is in Session Higher Education Access and the Feminization of Poverty

Today I am in a meeting. There is a proposal to raise the cost of parking permits from $25 to $30 per academic year. The board of trustees will most likely approve it. It is, after all, only a $5 increase. Silently, I think about the $30 parking permit, which financial aid most likely won’t cover. Thirty dollars was just as far away as $3000 when I was a stranded-on-welfare college student. I imagine myself spending days, weeks, or months budgeting exactly $25 for a university parking permit and experiencing the devastation of learning about the $5 increase at the cashier’s office. What would I have done? I would have been angry that I had not read the notification of the increase. Stranded-on-welfare college students read everything. We learn, very early on, that failing to read all available university correspondence can be catastrophic. We know, all too well, that even the slightest of changes in tuition and fees can set into motion a chain of events that derail your life for years. I would have panicked. I would have been embarrassed. I would have, more than anything, blamed myself, a tactic so ingrained in the socio-political rhetoric of welfare that it is inscribed upon the brains of the recipients themselves.

In fact, one of the mainstays of welfare is the way that it strips recipients of any sense of dignity and self-worth. In theory, providing social welfare for those who are most vulnerable should serve as a safety net and result in positive physical and mental health outcomes for those who most need it. However, the body of research surrounding the outcomes of stranded-on-welfare mothers indicates that the practices, policies, and procedures of the American welfare system regularly harm rather than help recipient physical and mental health. Indeed, the ways in which welfare transgressed against me feel countless.

Though some hope is found in recent research regarding the usage of unconditional income welfare programs, the aim of this essay has less to do with critiquing the welfare system itself and more to do with examining the institutions of higher education that claim to transform lives but, more than anything, uphold the classist social norms that limit the mobility of stranded-in-welfare mothers. Denying access to welfare recipients is one of the ways in which higher education institutions willingly participate and contribute to the feminization of poverty.

In many ways, some may argue, the doors to higher education are never closed. Colleges and universities never have to say that stranded-in-welfare mothers are excluded. They offer evening classes and provide no second shift childcare facilities. They assign fees that must be paid out-of-pocket in order to enroll. They require freshman and sophomore residency, but do not offer family housing. Though the doors are never closed, even a superficial glance makes it clear that colleges and universities across this country continue to codify inequity in their practices, policies, and procedures that exclude, specifically, single mothers. Admissions policies, for example, requiring upfront application fees and expensive tests are economically unjust practices. Retention policies, too, that do not adequately provide student support services for single parenthood need revision.

And while college and university administrators will have to address these exclusionary policies, the classroom educators at those institutions will have to as well. As a university instructor, I recognize that much of what I do, in the classroom, can maintain these inequities and uphold classism. In my classroom, I have tried to, within department and university guidelines, modify course requirements to ensure that success is accessible to all of my students. I am well aware that classroom attendance policies limit the success of welfare recipients who do not have reliable transportation or, on a much more basic level, may not have adequate access to basic necessities like menstrual products. Requiring students to purchase textbooks, materials, equipment, and software in our courses is also problematic. I also know that required group work and conferencing outside of regularly-scheduled class meeting times can also be taxing. I cannot count the number of times, as a student, I had scheduled meetings with mentors, professors, group members, or tutors that were rescheduled and cost me time, away from my child or job, and money that I could hardly spare. I imagine that most people do not recall rescheduled meetings for years afterward, but I recall, very vividly, every rescheduled meeting that caused me to be late at the daycare, to miss work, or to borrow gas money.

And the ones who do recall such occurrences have been taught to be ashamed of themselves and rarely speak up. Today, however, the majority of students attending college are women and colleges and universities across the country need to address the ways in which they contribute to the feminization of poverty. To posit that welfare recipients, and by extension, millions of women, simply do not desire higher education and, therefore, do not pursue it replaces institutional culpability with misogynistic stereotyping. Instead, colleges and universities need to evolve in their practices, policies, and procedures and engage in deliberate anti-poverty efforts that adequately address their exclusionary operations.

Jenny L. Teague is an indigenous educator and co-founder of the North Carolina Center for Women’s Justice.  

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