- Basic needs insecurity can have a negative impact on student academic performance and mental health. Solutions include food pantries, partnerships with local food banks and housing authorities, free transportation passes, and emergency aid.
- The four-year residential college experience is no longer the typical path for most students. Only 13 percent of first-year students live on campus, according to the nonprofit Higher Learning Advocates.
- Student parents, who make up roughly a quarter of all undergraduates, are more likely to experience basic needs insecurity.
- The purchasing power of federal financial aid for low-income students has declined. Although the maximum Pell award four decades ago covered more than three-fourths of average costs of attendance and living expenses at a four-year public university, it now covers less than 30 percent.
- Transportation can account for nearly 20 percent of the cost of college for off-campus students.
When John C.S. Kepner was sitting in a board meeting during his first year as a trustee at Gwynedd Mercy University, he was surprised to learn that students at the college were dealing with food and housing insecurity. “I thought, ‘That just can’t be,’” he said.
Gwynedd Mercy is a private Catholic university situated 30 miles outside of Philadelphia that enrolls 1,700 undergraduate students and nearly 800 graduate students. Slightly more than half of its undergraduate students are the first in their families to go to college, and around 30 percent are students of color.
Kepner, a retired lawyer and healthcare executive, wanted to learn more and found that the campus had recently opened a food pantry, but it was bare bones and located under a staircase. Kepner wanted to do something about it, so he began to leverage his personal network to develop relationships with local nonprofit organizations working with food distribution and housing assistance.
Five years later, Gwynedd Mercy and its six non-profit community partners have raised over $400,000 from public and private sources to support its College Student Basic Needs Program that includes helping students access healthy food through online ordering technology, a fund for affordable housing scholarships and emergency assistance, and community-based basic needs resources via a website now being developed. With institutional support, the university now has a full-fledged food pantry.
The demographics of college campuses are changing, says Daria Willis, president of Howard Community College in Columbia, Maryland. The college experiences that trustees might have had in earlier decades are very different from the reality faced by today’s college students. “When we look at the makeup of boards across the country, many of them do not reflect our student population,” she said. “You can’t expect for your experience to be the same experience that the students of today have.”
The four-year residential college experience is no longer the typical path for most students. Only 13 percent of first-year students live on campus, meaning the vast majority of undergraduates commute to campus, according to the nonprofit Higher Learning Advocates.
Around 40 percent of students are “nontraditional”, i.e. over the age of 24 and almost half of all undergraduates have attended community college. Almost half of undergraduates (45 percent) in 2015–16 identified as students of color, compared with 30 percent in 1995–96, according to the American Council on Education. Much of the growth is because of increased college enrollment of Latino students.
Also, as the cost of college has increased, the purchasing power of federal financial aid for low-income students has declined. As a result, students are more likely to be combining full-time jobs with studying and other responsibilities. Between 1999-2000 and 1999-2020, the average price of tuition, fees, and room and board for an undergraduate degree across all institutional types increased by 133 percent (from $12,349 to $28,775 in current dollars), according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
Four decades ago, the maximum Pell award covered more than three-fourths of the average cost of tuition, fees, and living expenses(1) at a four-year public university. Now, it covers less than 30 percent.
Growing Attention to Basic Needs
The prevalence of basic needs insecurity–which refers to both housing and food insecurity–on college campuses has received increased attention in the last several years. Beyond needing assistance with food and housing, large numbers of students also struggle with childcare and transportation. The College Board estimates that transportation can account for around 20 percent(2) of the cost of college for off-campus students.
The first major national survey on the issue was done in 2015 by sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab, the former director of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia.
While housing and food insecurity is more pronounced at community colleges, it is also widespread on four-year campuses. The latest report from the Hope Center, published in 2021, found that 61 percent of students at two-year colleges reported some form of basic needs insecurity, compared with 53 percent of students at four-year institutions.
The pandemic further exacerbated the basic needs issues on college campuses. Over multiple rounds of funding, the federal government allocated around $34 billion in pandemic relief aid to colleges for student emergency aid—assistance for students with basic living costs, such as food, housing, and transportation.
The question that remains is how colleges will find funding to sustain programs funded with federal stimulus dollars. Nine of 10 higher education institutions reported they were looking for additional ways to address students’ food and housing needs during the pandemic, according to the Hope Center. Thirty-nine percent of respondents at two-year colleges and 29 percent of students at four-year colleges said they had experienced food insecurity during the pandemic. Around half of students at two-year colleges and 30 percent of four year students experienced housing insecurity—referring to a difficulty paying rent, mortgage, or utility bills—while 14 percent of students across institutional types were homeless.
Another study of a large public research university in the southwest from BMC Public Health similarly found high rates of food insecurity (48.5 percent), housing insecurity (66.1 percent), and basic needs insecurity (37.1 percent).
The study identified financial factors such as being food insecure prior to attending college, working during college, and not having familial financial support as factors related to basic needs insecurity. Students who were more advanced in their undergraduate education and graduate students were also more likely to experience food and housing insecurity.
Other research has shown that basic needs insecurity can have a negative impact on student academic performance and mental health, an area that eight out of 10 college presidents have said has become more of a priority on their campuses in recent years. Solutions include food pantries, partnerships with local food banks and housing authorities,
free transportation passes, and emergency aid.
Keith Curry, president of Compton College in California, points out that some students are more impacted than others. “Housing and food insecurity needs to be looked at from a racial equity perspective on our campuses because certain student populations have been more affected than others,” he said.
Students of color were disproportionately impacted by these issues, research shows. For example, Black, Indigenous and American Indian or Alaska Native students were much more likely to experience basic needs insecurity than their White peers during the pandemic, according to the 2021 Hope Center survey. Another study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and UnidosUS found that Hispanic students were 19 percent more likely to report transportation problems as creating a barrier to college completion than non-Hispanics.
Another group more likely to experience basic needs insecurity is student parents, who make up roughly a quarter of all undergraduates. Student parents are more likely than their peers to be single, students of color, and from low-income backgrounds, according to a recent report from the non-profit Education Trust. The out-of-pocket cost of attending a four-year public college is 2 to 5 times higher for student parents than for their low-income peers without children. The analysis found that a student parent would need to work an average of 52 hours per week to cover child care and tuition costs at a four-year public college or university in the United States.
Brittani Williams, senior policy analyst at the Education Trust and one of the authors of the report, said that there is no state in which a student parent can work 10 hours a week at minimum wage and support both tuition and childcare. Ten hours is a benchmark because that’s the number that has no effect on academic performance, she added.
Finding Solutions for Food and Housing Insecurity
One of the first things Gwynedd Mercy and its local food pantry and community college partners did when they started looking into basic needs insecurity was to participate in the Hope Center’s national student survey, which covers both food and housing insecurity. The University and community college also ran six student focus groups to gain qualitative information about what their students were experiencing. And, they looked at national research on what other colleges were doing to address basic needs insecurity and the impact of those actions on student performance, retention and graduation. “The idea was to confirm the nature and the depth of the problem and get data to back all this up,” Kepner said.
Those studies allowed Kepner and other consortium team members to spell out why it was necessary to take a comprehensive approach to supporting students’ basic needs beyond a food
pantry. “How do you make the case for this kind of program to be supported as a line item of your budget, when there are so many other challenges?” Kepner said.
“The key is to always start with your mission. And your mission is to educate young people and get them to be productive members of society. If you’re going to recruit under-resourced students, it’s your obligation to help them to succeed.”
Once there was an understanding of the scope of the problem of basic needs insecurity on campus, the university, community college, and local food panty were able to launch a pilot program through a “consortium” with four non-profit organizations in the community that had food and housing expertise. The consortium also adopted a racial and social equity framework to inform every aspect of its program design.
Five years later, the consortium has raised over $400,000 from public and private sources to support their “College Student Basic Needs Program” that helps students access nutritious food through a remote on-line ordering technology; a fund for affordable housing scholarships; and emergency assistance and community-based basic needs resources via a website now being developed. And, with institutional support, the University and community college now have full-fledged food pantries with dedicated directors, both supported by a recent University social work graduate.
At Compton College, Curry said he also uses data-driven decisions to tailor initiatives to the student populations that need support. This has led to the creation of dedicated staff positions to support target populations. For example, Curry hired someone to coordinate CalFresh, California’s version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and a director of basic needs and success.
Due to declining college enrollment and academic outcomes of Black men, exacerbated during the pandemic, Curry also created a position for the Director of Black and Males of Color Success, Antonio Banks. As the new director, Banks helps students navigate college and secure access to resources, including food, housing and transportation. He also makes sure that students receive individualized academic advising on issues such as transfer.
Curry says that allocating money to programs and positions focused on student support demonstrates a college’s commitment to student success. “Budgets are your value statements,” he said.
“Those positions are value statements. We will support students who are on CalFresh, and we want to see more students get enrolled in CalFresh, so we have a staff person responsible for that.”
Compton College, like Gwynedd Mercy University, has also focused on community relationships as a key element of its student support services. The college has connected with the Los Angeles Food Bank to operate a mobile food pantry.
It also partners with the Los Angeles County Department of Social Services to provide data-sharing related to CalFresh enrollment to help identify students who might qualify for CalFresh programs. “As we move forward in the basic needs space, I think the future is engaging in partnerships to expand the types of programs and services we can provide for our students,” Curry said.
A report from the Center for Equitable Higher Education (CEHE) at California State University, Long Beach, recommends that colleges should ensure that basic needs resources reach the students who need them the most. “Students who are of color, first-generation, low-income, undocumented, have child dependents, or have histories in foster care are most likely to experience basic needs insecurity,” the authors write. “Students at the intersection of one or more of these identities show even higher rates of need and these students are often least likely to seek help on their own.”
Other recommendations from CEHE include developing and funding “housing navigators” and providing access to housing resources; strengthening relationships with community-based
partners and other colleges; training faculty and staff in trauma-informed practices; evaluating existing programs and interventions; implementing creative and de-stigmatizing awareness campaigns; and fully leveraging all available public benefits.
Supporting student parents
Measures to support student parents benefit many of the other student groups that colleges serve, says David Croom, associate director of the Aspen Institute’s Postsecondary Success for Parents (ASCEND). ASCEND is working to ensure that the climate within post-secondary education, both academic and vocation, is supportive of student parents receiving high quality credentials that can ensure that they are able to attain a family sustaining wage or on to further education, Croom said.
Student parents are more likely to attend community colleges, but they exist at every institution. “As colleges are starting to have more of a specific focus around serving students of color or serving older students, student parents provide a really great proxy and sort of intersection of all these kinds of key populations that colleges are really looking to serve,” he said. “That could be a really important note for college leaders, whether it be administrators or trustees within those institutions.”
Croom points out that student parents are often better students despite the extra financial and logistical challenges they face. “This is a really motivated population,” he said. “Student parents actually tend to have higher GPAs than their peers.”
He said that research shows that not only will attaining a higher education help the parents, it will also ensure better outcomes for their children.
Caregiving, to children or adults, can also be a major factor in persistence and retention. The 2021 Lumina-Gallup Student Study found that nearly-one third of college students report that they are parents of minor children or caregivers to adults. This includes 42 percent of students pursuing an associate degree program and 21 percent of those pursuing a bachelor’s degree. Black and Hispanic college students are more likely than White and Asian students to be parents or caregivers to adults.
Caregiving responsibilities alone can result in students dropping out. Even when controlling for race, program level, income and other factors, college students who provide care to children or adults are much more likely than their peers to say they have considered stopping taking courses in the past six months.
“This is an opportunity for colleges to really think about how they are providing access to subsidized childcare, robust case management, or scholarships and other resources that are targeted to student parents or to adults as a way to increase enrollment and ensure that those students feel supported and are able to be successful within those institutional contexts,” Croom said.
Willis, of Howard Community College, drew on her own experience as a student parent when she was president of Everett Community College in Washington state. The college was opening a learning resource center and Willis pushed for a redesign that would create a space where students could bring their children. The new plan included a children’s library and study rooms for student parents.
“I just think about the times where I used to go to the library in Florida, with my daughter in tow, and she would be bored out of her mind, because she was looking at all these big old stuffy books,” Willis said. “What if she had an opportunity to be in a space that was brightly colored and especially designed for her?”
Willis said the redesign involved getting the board to understand why it was important to take a “two-generational” approach. “Students need to be able to attend class and when they study, what happens to their kids?” she said. “We can’t offer 24-hour childcare, but we could certainly have a space where it’s safe and learner-centered for both the parent and their children.”
The report from the Education Trust on college affordability and student parents outlines several suggestions for institutions to better support students with families.
To start, colleges can collect and report institutional-level data on student-parent enrollment, retention, completion, finances, and financial aid to the U.S. Department of Education via surveys from the Integrated Postsecondary Data System (IPEDS). The authors also advocate for the automatic inclusion of child care expenses in determining the cost of attendance used to award financial aid packages. In addition, colleges should take advantage of state and federal programs that support child care and help student parents access state child care subsidies. For campuses that have campus- based childcare programs, they should stay open year-round and offer hours that align with course schedules.
Williams, the analyst at the Education Trust, also recommended that colleges give student parents priority enrollment at on-campus childcare centers. She also suggests providing targeted training for faculty and staff in how to best support student parents on campus.
Supporting institutional missions
Addressing the needs of low-income students, students of color, and student parents—all of whom are more likely to experience basic needs insecurity—can be crucial to meeting the larger institutional goals of retention and student success. “This is an equity and access issue,” Willis said. “If we are really, truly about diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging and a culture of caring on our campuses, then we’ll do everything that we possibly can to support these students.”
Curry adds that colleges need to catch up with their students. “The system that we currently operate in higher education, especially at community colleges, was not built for the student population we have right now,” he says. “Looking at everything from a racial equity lens, some of the stuff that we did in the past is not going to work with the student population. So what are we going to do differently?”
Charlotte West is a freelance education reporter
Resources and research
The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice
Student Parent Affordability, The Education Trust
“Dreams Interrupted: A Mixed-Methods Study Assessing Latino College Completion”, UnidosUS and UNC School of Law
Transforming and Institutionalizing Basic Needs Supports in California Higher Education, Center for Equitable Higher Education (CEHE) at California State University, Long Beach
“It’s a Feeling That One Is Not Worth Food”: A Qualitative Study Exploring the Psychosocial Experience and Academic Consequences of Food Insecurity Among College Students.”
“A cross sectional assessment of basic needs insecurity prevalence and associated factors among college students enrolled at a large, public university in the Southeastern U.S”. BMC Public Health