I was honored to recently attend the  #RealCollege conference, hosted by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.  The conference included many inspiring breakout sessions, a film festival, a book club, and a tour of the Houston Food Bank.  Representing 34 states, 500 attendees engaged in addressing the needs of REAL college students. 

I was taken by the depth and breadth of participants and presenters – college and university staff/faculty/administrators, community organizers, policy developers/advocates, researchers, agency representatives, analysts, and students. Sessions were offered on reform, leadership, advocacy, public policy, the economics of higher education, storytelling, activism, and research, as well as strategies, basic needs, and innovation.  No matter the session, the presenter, or the speaker, the foci were consistently centered on pathways to possibilities, access, and equity.  An ongoing thread was that while talent is equally distributed across students, opportunity certainly is not.  We need to be continually reminded that students are resilient and brilliant – and we need to support them in their goal attainment, while meeting their basic needs. 

Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, the creator and director of The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, located at Temple University in Philadelphia, spoke throughout the event.  “The Hope Center is home to an action research team using rigorous research to drive innovative practice, evidence-based policymaking, and effective communications to support #RealCollege students" (http://saragoldrickrab.com/research/).   She shared that the work is centered on meeting the needs of the most vulnerable students first.

The topics and sessions at the conference became immediately personal and related to Starfish as we discussed students’ need for the sense of belonging, the need for faculty engagement and research on student challenges, and the need to identify and address root causes of performance/outcomes.  These are topics that the Strategic Consultants address on the campuses with whom we work.  Belongingness is a key aspect of the Intervention Inventory and discussed on every campus.  Root causes, or the WHY things are occurring, are addressed when working with senior leadership during our visits.  Our work is current, relevant, and important.

The conference had several throughlines that relate directly to our work.  They include recognizing that the basic needs of students is not being something “new,” it is much easier to perpetuate the status quo than to rethink approaches to student needs/success, and that higher education is no longer viewed as an investment, but as an expense.  Unfortunately, it is coming at the expense of students.  Higher education has not moved into the 21st century – and it needs to change its mantra of “College ready” to “Student ready!”  

My experience attending the conference was humbling, heartbreaking, energizing, challenging, and motivating.  I have a renewed sense of obligation to address equal access to student opportunity.  As Sara so aptly said, “Being a college student is hard.  Being a REAL college student is harder!” 

You can learn more about how Starfish is working to identify students with basic needs, via Starfish Project Hope, and perhaps having your institution participate please visit the Starfish Project Hope for more information and to sign up for our communications. 

Follow Starfish on social media:


Visit the Resource Center