Our work at Edquity positions us on the front lines of student basic needs support, giving us the opportunity to learn both from students themselves and from campus administrators as they experiment with solutions. We’ve been heartened to see individual schools, and in some cases states, make efforts to prioritize basic needs assistance by hiring basic needs coordinators and creating campus departments to focus on these issues. Bringing on these new campus leaders is a critical step in the right direction, but it’s just the first step in a long journey to make lasting change for students in need.
Getting to the root of the issues that drive basic needs insecurity will require systemic policy change that will take more time than today’s students have to wait. But that doesn’t mean colleges and universities can’t take meaningful steps forward to build a more comprehensive, multifaceted approach to addressing basic needs insecurity. Based on our experience helping institutions implement more holistic strategies, we have a few ideas.
Campus hunger is an issue that is often underestimated, despite the serious implications it has for student well-being and their prospects for success in school. Our partners at the Hope Center recently found that as many as one-third of all college students experience food insecurity, and recent research suggests that there is a direct connection between food insecurity and negative educational outcomes such as low graduation rates. Many institutions have established food pantries on campus to distribute free food and other supplies for students, including 700 schools working with Hope Center partner The College & University Food Bank Alliance. In addition, student-driven solutions including Swipe Out Hunger, a nonprofit that works with more than 140 schools to design anti-hunger strategies, have also presented innovative solutions to campus hunger. Despite the growing appreciation and advocacy work to address student needs, longer-term strategies will play a key role in driving lasting change for food-insecure students.
One of the most effective actions that administrators can take to address food insecurity is helping students to navigate available programs and benefits offered through state and federal government. College students face a number of challenges accessing government food assistance programs (e.g., SNAP), often due to a simple lack of awareness, not to mention the difficulty of navigating a maze of eligibility requirements. In California, the state government and schools are taking laudable steps to simplify these processes for students:
With the federal eviction moratorium now lifted, housing insecure students need more support than ever. Of the over 100,000 applications Edquity has received from students in 2021, more than 60% of students report experiencing housing insecurity, and the Urban Institute estimates that the average current rental arrears are between $3,000-$7,000 per renter. Colleges in every community should begin cultivating relationships with local housing authorities to explore ways to ensure students can remain housed during this looming eviction crisis and access affordable housing generally. By deepening connections with local housing authorities, colleges and universities can help students secure critical emergency funding and find viable housing options in nearby communities, particularly given the recent proposal in the House to expand rental assistance vouchers by $75 billion.
A success story comes from Tacoma Community College, where a collaboration with the Tacoma Housing authority led to the creation of the College Housing Assistance Program in 2014. The program serves students that are currently or at-risk of experiencing by providing federal rental assistance vouchers. In the years following its implementation, the number of students served has grown from 50 to nearly 150 per year. It is important to note that this assistance is available to both homeless students and near-homeless students. While this distinction may seem trivial, students who are couch-surfing or living in their cars are experiencing instability that can be extremely detrimental to their academic success.
The“digital divide” has posed a significant threat to the success of low-income students, particularly in the context of distance learning during the pandemic. A report from ACT found that thirty-five percent of students from low-income families and thirty percent of first-generation college students had limited access to the internet, suggesting that these students may struggle to access coursework, attend lessons, and access other essential resources. Recognizing the increased need for devices, the Los Angeles Community College District (LACCD) LACCD has purchased and distributed nearly 40,000 Chromebooks or Surface Go devices since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This intervention from the district signals an essential understanding of the challenges facing students and steps that can be taken to encourage students to continue their coursework in spite of the challenges of the present moment.
Supplying students with access to the hardware to succeed in their courses is essential, but connectivity is equally important. In May 2021, the Department of Education launched an outreach campaign to expand awareness of the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit Program that provides discounts on WiFi services for qualifying students. Private companies, such as T-Mobile, have also made efforts to reduce connectivity-related financial burdens on students. Basic needs coordinators can work to build partnerships with local utility providers to ensure that their students have every opportunity to access home wireless services that have become necessary to their schoolwork.
Whether due to lack of awareness or complexity, helpful resources too often go overlooked by students in need. It’s undeniable that navigating benefits and eligibility requirements can be highly complex, but institutions can’t afford to allow these resources to go untapped. By increasing awareness and accessibility to state, federal, and other external programs, administrators can build out a full toolkit to supplement on-campus resources, giving students as much support as possible to meet their needs.