Universities and the Poverty Narrative

By convincing students they’re destitute, colleges are breeding government dependence.

Universities are supposed to prepare young people to become independent by teaching them critical thinking and preparing them for careers. When a young adult enters university, we expect him or her to come out prepared to handle life as an independent and resilient adult. However, it seems to me, after nearly 20 years teaching at San José State University (SJSU), including living on campus for two years as a faculty-in-residence, that universities are creating a dependency on government systems.

Creating dependency is done in a variety of ways. One way is by treating students as children. This treatment retards their maturation. At SJSU, I saw this often. The University Health Center held Saturday morning cartoon events for students to attend in pajamas while they ate cereal and watched television meant for kindergartners. The movies the university showed often included the latest animated children’s film, like The Super Mario Bros. Movie.

When I attended universities in the mid-1990s, we were shown films such as the 1970 cult classic The Honeymoon Killers. Cartoons and other forms of children’s entertainment, such as bouncy castles, were not sponsored by the schools I attended. If we wanted to relive our childhoods, it would be on our dime and time—as it should be.

If college students want to relive their childhoods, it should be on their dime and time.While I was a faculty-in-residence, I treated students as adults and encouraged them to rise to the occasion. Unfortunately, I was often alone in these endeavors, as the other faculty members held friendship-bracelet nights, hosted hair nights, and sponsored petting zoos.

Another method to ensure the raising of a dependent generation is safeguarding students from offense. This includes the use of trigger warnings, which some no longer call trigger warnings because the word “trigger” may be triggering; safe spaces, where students won’t be confronted with ideas that may offend them; counseling services, when, e.g., President Trump won the 2016 election; and the changing of terms, to avoid upsetting students. SJSU recently changed the term academic probation, which was previously used when a student’s grade point average fell below a C, to “academic notice.” The reason for this change, according to a campus-wide email distributed by the provost’s office, was as follows:

Removing the language of incarceration from our lexicon is just one of the ways that we are working to become a student ready campus of the future. As many of you know, using the language of “probation” frames our work with students in a deficit mindset and tells them that their academic misstep is the equivalent of something criminal.

Missing from the university’s calculus is the fact that altering language enables students to avoid feeling bad about their poor performance and will prevent them from being prepared for a work world in which success is not about feelings.

The most harmful tactic universities employ to ensure a government-dependent generation is the constant poverty narrative students are surrounded by. Nearly everyone you ask about the price of American higher education will claim it’s too expensive and leads students into unrepayable debts. University education could be made less costly, of course, but there is a frequent exaggeration of the costs and a misleading narrative by professors, administrators, politicians, and the media about student lifestyles. The narrative is that students are poverty-stricken, and, thus, the government should step in to make education “free.”

Let me provide some information about the real costs in the California State University System (CSU), which has 23 campuses and provides education up to the master’s level. After community colleges, which serve as trade training centers and bridges to transferring to a four-year college, the CSU System has the largest percentage of California college students. About 40 percent of California students attend a community college; 13 percent attend the CSU; and 7 percent attend the University of California System. Recently, FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression) published a report on campus free-speech rankings. In this report, FIRE wrote that CSU tuition per year is $17,622, though that figure is actually the fee for out-of-state tuition. This misleads readers into thinking that is what students pay. In fact, very few students actually pay so much, because about 94 percent of CSU students are in-state students, which enables them to attend at far lower rates.

The narrative is that students are poverty-stricken, and the government should step in to make education “free.”The SJSU tuition and fees price for in-state students is $7,992 a year. At California State University, Los Angeles, the cost is $6,814 per year. The average cost for a year of tuition and fees at CSU is $7,520. This is, obviously, not free, but considering that minimum wage in California sits at $15.50 an hour, working approximately three months should cover the cost. Students can pay for college with a summer job. Other universities can, of course, be more expensive; for instance, the more prestigious University of California System’s costs are about double the expense at CSU. Nevertheless, even without aid, tuition and fees are affordable. Furthermore, living expenses, about which one hears much, are incurred by people whether they attend the university or not. They should not be counted when discussing university costs.

To be clear, universities could be made less costly. At SJSU, for instance, there is a Student Union fee of $824 per year, which goes in part to supporting a new Student Recreation and Aquatic Center that cost $130 million to build. There is also the Student Success, Excellence, and Technology Fee, which was implemented in 2012 and costs students $723 a year. Although it was sold as going to instructional-related activities such as “smart” classrooms, over 40 percent of the revenue, or about $9.3 million a year, goes to athletics. The removal of athletics fees alone would save students between $500 and $1,000 a year.

Other expenses that can be reined in are administrative fees, especially in regard to the administrative bloat that has resulted in a weed-like growth of careers in academia having little to do with education. For instance, SJSU has a diversity, equity, and inclusion committee with over 30 individuals and last year held a symposium on race that cost $75,000. The committee also came up with a diversity, equity, and inclusion dictionary, which is riddled with errors, such as the typo “wiht” in the very first entry, on ableism. No doubt, university costs can be decreased, but this does not alter the fact that public universities in the U.S. are often affordable.

Many students complain about costs beyond tuition and fees; for instance, students often complain about textbook costs, though nearly all books are provided for free through the library, either online or on course-reserve. In the last nine years I taught at SJSU, students requested I put copies of texts on course-reserve, but for most semesters not a single student used these materials. (The library provides faculty with details of students’ use.) These same students who complain about instructional costs seem to have no problem buying expensive cellphones, new tattoos, earbuds, and trendy clothing. Lost items, ranging from jackets to designer sunglasses, are often not retrieved from classrooms for the entire semester.

So yes, both student and university spending could be reduced, but reasonable options seem to escape the budget cuts. Instead, students are pushed into believing they are poverty-stricken as universities create a dependency culture wherein students sign up for government handouts.

SJSU used to have free grocery days, during which students lined up for their free food like Soviet peasants.SJSU used to have free grocery days, during which students lined up for their free food like Soviet peasants. Prior to filling bags full of groceries, the students filled out food-stamp forms and were thus enrolled in government-welfare systems. These students weren’t starving—often, there wasn’t a single thin person in line. Yet, when it comes to signing up for food stamps, students tend to believe the poverty narrative that is pushed onto them through university propaganda, such as food-insecurity posters that, ironically, include only fat and obese people.

Another way to push the poverty narrative is to redefine what it means to “experience homelessness.” SJSU Cares, a division of student affairs that provides food and housing to students “in need,” noted in their 2021 report that 11.2 percent of respondents said they had experienced homelessness. This sounds horrendous, but the statistic is a perfect example of poverty-inflation. Homelessness was defined as being without a home for one day in the last year. The average duration was 3.4 days; the mode was one day. About 60 percent slept on someone’s couch; nearly 10 percent spent the night in a motel or hotel. Yet the description of these homeless nights included the statement that “these locations [were] not designed for human habitation.”

Why does the university push the poverty narrative? I think the agenda is to promote a bigger safety-net government that takes care of people, rather than a resilient and independent population. It’s an ideological difference between those who think the government should be our caretakers and those who seek liberty and individual freedom. Those who have invested in a career promoting government-welfare systems are unlikely to want to see these systems dismantled, even if they are no longer needed. Unfortunately, this means continuing the spread of poor ideas, such as “equity” rather than equality, and blaming systemic racism for individual failures. Thus, I’d like to end with my favorite Ronald Reagan quote, to remind us that much harm can be done in the service of care, even when it comes from within our university campuses: “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”

Elizabeth Weiss is a professor of anthropology at San José State University, a faculty fellow at Heterodox Academy, and a soon-to-be board member of the National Association of Scholars. She is the co-author (with James W. Springer) of Repatriation and Erasing the Past (2020).