As hundreds of thousands of students scramble to submit their college applications, many are thinking beyond the daunting cost of tuition and student fees to how they will pay for their everyday necessities once they've arrived on campus. With nearly half of college students at two- and four-year institutions experiencing food insecurity and more than half struggling with housing insecurity, it goes without saying that gaps in basic-needs provision are a major issue impacting today's college students — one that requires a systemic solution.
Examples of expenses that can derail a student's progression to a degree include emergency car repairs, rent increases, or a sudden illness. Such needs and emergencies often can be addressed, however, by immediate direct supports, including emergency-aid grants, food pantries, rapid rehousing services, and campus partnerships with community and government agencies aimed at ensuring students are supported throughout their academic journey.
Colleges are well positioned to be points of entry to a coordinated suite of social services for students. Working in tandem with community and government partners, colleges can use their own resources and design more student-centered services to cover students’ basic needs and keep them on track to their degrees.
For instance, in Washington state, the United Way of King County is working in partnership with local colleges to develop on-campus Benefits Hubs, which are designed to connect students to public benefits like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as well as community partners that can provide immediate resources and financial assistance for housing-related emergencies.
Holistic support provided by colleges and community-based programs also can play a critical role in providing students with a pathway out of their basic-needs challenges. The Southern Scholarship Foundation in Florida works with universities and colleges across the state to provide rent-free housing to postsecondary students who demonstrate academic merit and financial need. Having a secure and safe place to return to after school and work is essential for student well-being and academic success and can be the difference between a student graduating or dropping out.
There's no one-size-fits-all in terms of helping today’s college students — many of whom no longer match the traditional description of the 18- to 24-year-old seeking a four-year degree right out of high school. Today’s students are more likely to be over 25 and the first in their family to attend college. Many also often face competing demands for their time, including work and family responsibilities.
Research from the Institute for Women's Policy Research (IWPR) found that while the population of single-mother students has increased significantly over the years, only 28 percent of single moms who enroll in college will graduate with an associate or bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to 40 percent of married mothers and 57 percent of female students who are not parents. The disparity often is due to the very real challenge of supporting a family, juggling work, and completing coursework. IWPR found that providing students with parent support services, including childcare, goes a long way to helping single moms succeed.
Colleges and universities alone cannot fix the problem. It will take a movement to address students' multifaceted needs and safeguard postsecondary education as a public good. And it will require action and collective investment involving multiple sectors, including institutions of higher education, government, community-based organizations, and research and philanthropic entities.
In October, California governor Gavin Newsom signed into law sweeping legislation designed to increase the allocation of funding for emergency-aid grants for community college students in the state, in addition to approving $19 million to address homelessness among students across the state’s community college, California State University, and University of California systems. Both policy actions expand support for students who may otherwise be at risk of dropping out due to financial emergencies and basic-needs challenges. Other states could emulate California and help their most vulnerable students overcome these types of life crises so that they persist through school and graduate with a degree.
Last month, ECMC Foundation launched the Basic Needs Initiative, a $3 million effort to pilot, evaluate, and scale programs aimed at stemming the tide of basic-needs insecurity among college students. Through a national cohort of seven organizations and institutions working with two- and four-year institutions, we will spend the next three years working with grantees to address basic needs issues among students, with a focus on food, housing, child care, mental health, emergency financial assistance, and transportation.
But we can't stop there.
We need others to invest in organizations working to address basic-needs insecurity. We need holistic approaches aimed at increasing academic persistence and graduation rates for the most vulnerable students on campus. And we need to work to eliminate basic-needs insecurity as an issue so that students who complete a bachelor's degree reap the return on investment and the social mobility that comes with it.
Together, we can reduce basic-needs insecurity for students, today and into the future.
Sarah Belnick is senior program director for College Success at ECMC Foundation, a national foundation working to improve postsecondary outcomes for students from underserved backgrounds.