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Addressing College Students’ Basic Needs: What We’re Learning So Far

May 05, 2022

By Sarah Belnick, Senior Program Director, College Success

In the fall of 2019, ECMC Foundation launched its Basic Needs Initiative (BNI), a first-of-its-kind effort in the philanthropic and postsecondary education sector designed to address and alleviate issues like housing and food insecurity among college students. We developed the $3.1 million initiative in response to research showing that basic needs insecurity was prevalent at both two- and four-year campuses, impacting students' ability to complete their degrees. One national survey found that, at the time, nearly half (45%) of students had been food insecure in the past 30 days, while 56% had been housing insecure in the previous year.

Four months after we launched the initiative with the seven grantee partners in our learning community, the COVID-19 pandemic swept across college campuses and beyond, exacerbating and accelerating the basic needs crisis. The swift closure of dorms and dining halls threatened many students’ access to housing and food, while access to mental health support and reliable technology expanded our understanding of what was truly fundamental to a student’s college success.

Our BNI learning community has pivoted, adapted, and learned as the nature of the pandemic experience for college students evolved. We will have an in-depth evaluation of this work to share in 2023, which we hope will provide the field with useful insight on the systemic changes needed to ensure that students can achieve their educational goals.

As we continue exploring promising approaches to effectively address basic needs insecurity on campus, here are key insights from our learning community’s work so far:

  • Creative solutions to providing basic needs during the pandemic may be effective longer term. Early findings from the BNI cohort, which works with 76 partner institutions across the country, indicated that the pandemic’s early lockdowns led to creative adaptation, including institutions in Michigan that partnered with churches to implement mobile food pantries, and other institutions that use social media and text messages in new ways to reach students and connect them to services.
  • Key equity gaps in basic needs provision may affect the success of certain student groups, including parents, students of color, and rural students. A new survey from Education Northwest of institutions partnering with our BNI cohort, found that institutions providing basic needs supports are most likely to provide food assistance and least likely to provide assistance with child care. In addition, institutions with a greater proportion of students of color were less likely to provide basic needs services. While challenges in providing services varied by geography, institutions in cities were more likely to cite staffing as a large challenge, and minority-serving and rural institutions were more likely to cite funding as a large challenge.

Since the launch of the Basic Needs Initiative, ECMC Foundation’s commitment to basic needs has expanded beyond our learning cohort to include many more grantee partners working to ensure students have access to the technology, health care, and transportation support they need to continue learning. The broader philanthropic community, through emergency aid and more recent efforts to address mental health needs on campus, has also expanded their attention and commitment to these issues during the pandemic.

In addition to the BNI learning community cohort, we’ve committed more than $12 million in grants to more than 25 organizations addressing basic needs. At the onset of the pandemic in spring 2020, ECMC Foundation also committed nearly $2 million to four grantee partners to provide emergency aid funding directly to students. The partners leveraged these funds and raised nearly $7 million for emergency aid, which was distributed to nearly 11,000 students. This additional funding gave us even more insight into the state of basic needs as the pandemic evolved. An initial review of these grants showed that the average award was $466 per student and that housing and food were the most frequently identified need. Underscoring the role of basic needs in racial and economic equity in higher ed, the majority of emergency aid recipients were students of color and Pell-eligible.

The pandemic transformed the college experience of millions of students and spurred much-needed action on basic needs. But as the pandemic enters a new era and the crisis subsides, we must (re)commit to equitably addressing the insecurity faced by many students on their path to a life-changing degree or credential.

Learn more about the Basic Needs Initiative and read more about what we are learning from Education Northwest.

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