When basic needs supports go underutilized by students, it's a sign that something deeper is going on. Research has shown that when resources are too cumbersome to access, there is a stigma around seeking help, or there is a sense that resources are limited, students will go without. To encourage students to take advantage of available resources, college and university administrators and staff can simplify access, destigmatize resources, and communicate clearly that there is plenty of aid for everyone.
The Hope Center found that in 2021, 43 percent of students at two- and four-year colleges reported facing food insecurity, which has compounded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet some students feel stigma or guilt about accessing university food resources or worry about taking food from another student who needs it more. According to a California State University system basic needs study, even students who had been identified within the Cal State system as needing basic needs support still seemed unsure about their level of need being eligible for services.
In addition to providing food resources to students, universities can help normalize the use of food resources. It’s also important that food be easy to access, which can happen through local partnerships—and those organizations can also provide additional resources, like housing, health care, and child care.
The State University of New York at Albany’s collaboration with its community food banks and pantries has provided over 50,000 meals to students and community members in the past year. And the University of Toledo in Ohio and its food service provider redirect unused food from catered events on campus to students, using a meal-alert system. The program saved 12,000 pounds in food waste in its first year and provided needed food to students.
In Maryland, the Morgan State University food resource center provides food, hygiene items, cooking demonstrations, nutrition education, and transportation to local grocery stores. The idea is to ultimately help students and other community members achieve lasting food security.
According to a 2021 Student Voice survey, conducted by Inside Higher Ed and College Pulse and presented by Kaplan:
Inside Higher Ed’s analysis of the issue suggests that schools make it easier to make appointments for mental health services, provide immediate help options, and provide private counseling spaces. In addition, communication from counseling centers about how no problem is too small to seek help could help destigmatize mental health services.
Adelphi University has set aside private rooms within its campus counseling center, and the University of Iowa created an inventory of private spaces across campus.
Because financial aid policies are still misaligned with students’ actual needs, many students aren’t able to access the financial help they need. 30 of the 100 largest state-funded financial aid programs require full-time enrollment, and 26 have age-out policies that link eligibility to a high school graduation date. State application deadlines and disbursement policies mean that aid is awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis, penalizing students with less predictable enrollment schedules. Pell Grants prorate aid based on the number of courses a student is taking, disadvantaging part-time students, who have the same maximum federal loan limits as full-time students.
Changes at the policy level could have a huge impact on students’ ability to qualify for and use financial aid. At the same time, federal SNAP benefits should be simplified and expanded.
Amarillo College in Texas has found a creative way to determine exactly what its students need and uses community partnerships to deliver targeted basic needs services. Every semester, students complete a voluntary email survey about their out-of-class food and housing needs. Responses are saved to the student’s file within the two-year college’s student information system, and responses that report food and housing insecurity are sent on to the college’s Advocacy and Resource Center and Counseling Center.
In 2017, 20 percent of Amarillo College’s 9,000 students reported having “no” or “limited” access to transportation, so the college collaborated with the City of Amarillo and the local transit authority to get direct bus routes to campus and free rides for students, faculty members, and staff. During the pandemic, administrators used survey data to determine how to distribute $15.6 million in federal stimulus aid, which boosted retention rates: The retention rate of students who filled out the survey and received financial assistance was 7 percentage points higher than the college-wide rate between 2020 and 2021. 67 percent of students receive some type of need-based financial aid.
Partnerships with local nonprofits and city government ensure help meet students’ needs quickly and easily, with no stigma. Lawyers in Amarillo do pro bono work for the college’s legal aid clinic; the nonprofit health care facility Heal the City provides free or subsidized psychiatric care for students; and the nonprofit Panhandle Community Services helps students with housing, utilities, and mortgage grant assistance.
The process seems to be working: The college’s graduation and transfer rate to four-year institutions rose from 30 percent in 2015 to 58 percent in 2020.
Other schools are trying similar methods to learn what their students need and meet them where they are. Portland State University conducted a similar survey in 2019 that also included all of its employees—custodians, groundskeepers, faculty members, and deans—and learned that 22.7 percent had experienced housing insecurity that past year. A pilot program with other area schools provided housing assistance to students.
When colleges and universities target services to what their students need, partner with community organizations to augment services, and make access to those services easy and mainstream, the results are threefold. Students are more likely to take advantage of the services they need because they’re easy to access, plentiful, and there’s no stigma. Students who have their basic needs met are also more likely to be successful in college, transferring from two-year to four-year schools and earning a degree. In addition, staff at those same institutions can benefit from more widely available services.