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Basic Needs Count in College Decisions

May 16, 2022

Dear ECMC Foundation community,

In May, ECMC Foundation recognizes College Signing Day, when high school students across the United States commit to pursuing their postsecondary education — whether in a career and technical education program, community college or four-year institution. For many students, this is a joyful culmination after years of hard work and big dreams.

For others, though, it’s fraught. With higher education comes higher expenses. The costs of basic needs such as food, housing, childcare, mental health and transportation add up quickly, and when tallied alongside the demands of higher education, they can drive would-be graduates out of the game.

A 2020 survey commissioned in partnership with Swipe Out Hunger found that more than half of all students sometimes use off-campus food banks, and one-third of students say they know someone who has dropped out of college due to difficulties affording food. A follow-up 2022 report reveals that many college food pantries face challenges with inventory, funding and staffing. Though we can’t always track mental health statistics so precisely, there’s no question that a lack of access to those services can weigh heavily on students.

It’s difficult to imagine how we can expect anyone to finish a degree or earn a career-ready credential when their basic needs aren’t met. Even where critical supports exist, students don’t always know about them or, they can’t access them quickly. A new report from ECMC Foundation grantee Believe in Students shows that it takes students nearly two weeks to receive emergency aid. Emergencies often don’t wait that long, which is why the Foundation partners with organizations like Edquity to help students get aid within 24 hours. Moreover, because every student’s needs differ, service capacity at individual institutions tends to be limited at best, and nonexistent at worst.

ECMC Foundation’s Basic Needs Initiative (BNI) aims to change this dynamic, including the lack of services to promote mental health.

Launched in 2019 and buoyed by $3.1 million in grants, the BNI involves a cohort of seven grantee organizations (postsecondary institutions, community-based organizations and research teams) working with more than 70 two- and four-year partner institutions. In the ensuing three years, cohort members have undertaken projects ranging from scaling existing evidence-based programs to providing new supports and adding to our understanding of basic needs insecurity.

As the first national postsecondary education funder with a designated grantee cohort addressing basic needs among college students, ECMC Foundation is invested in identifying, establishing and scaling basic needs programs that work in colleges and universities across the country.

Increasingly, we have prioritized mental health among those basic needs. With the COVID-19 pandemic and all that has accompanied it, there is no longer any question that mental health is a basic need — right alongside housing, childcare and food. Destigmatizing mental health needs over the last couple of years has been a deeply necessary shift, and we are proud to see these conversations now happening out in the open.

While ECMC Foundation has long supported mental health through organizations like Active Minds and the Steve Fund, the pandemic has worsened things for countless students. In response, we’ve channeled resources to meet the more acute demand in particular communities.

Students of color have faced sudden and compounded stresses due to the pandemic, so these programs seek to establish a sustainable, scalable model for accessible mental health services at some of the nation’s most affected campuses. Because many students today may be more comfortable talking to a counselor online — whether for scheduling purposes, social distancing needs or personal preference — META Teletherapy’s app-based mental health services offer a great, accessible option for scaling these essential services.

In 2020, we granted $270,000 to the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to provide students enrolled at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Predominantly Black Institutions (PBIs) with free access to META Teletherapy at no charge to the institutions.

Throughout the past year, additional factors including the rise in Anti-Asian hate incidents on college campuses have exacerbated the need for comprehensive, culturally responsive mental health services. We partnered with APIA Scholars to create the APIA Scholar Mental Health Initiative in 2021. Through this grant, APIA Scholars staff receive training to better support their scholars. They are also piloting the META app across five Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander-Serving Institution partners and APIA Scholars’ scholarship recipients. In addition to scaling supportive mental wellness services and practices at these institutions, we hope to further reduce mental health stigma among students everywhere.

This month, millions of students are making a big decision that will impact the rest of their lives: where to take their higher education journey. If we want to see them succeed, we must remember their success depends on having their most basic needs met. We’re proud of the work our partners are doing to ensure more students have a real chance at not only committing to college, but also completing their postsecondary journeys.



Peter J. Taylor

President, ECMC Foundation

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