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Renewing Our Commitment to Basic Needs Security for Every Postsecondary Student

By Ireri Rivas Mier y Teran, Program Officer

November 16, 2023

Family celebrating graduation

ECMC Foundation’s Basic Needs Initiative addresses basic needs insecurity among postsecondary students. The lack of resources—or fear of a lack of resources—when it comes to food, housing, childcare, transportation, technology, physical and mental health services and more can disrupt learning, persistence and completion in postsecondary education. Students who face basic needs insecurity are at heightened risk of leaving college without a credential, incurring debt and facing additional financial and basic needs challenges in later years, particularly when they come from underserved backgrounds.

Our new basic needs strategy coincides with the anniversary of the Foundation’s first formal grants and investments to address basic needs insecurity. When we first launched the Basic Needs Initiative in late 2019, we could not have imagined what was about to happen; the Foundation had expected to go slow, alongside grantees and investees, but those plans, of course, were dramatically altered with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic just a few months later. As grantees shared their compounding challenges, the Foundation had to pivot quickly across programs in response to the extremely chaotic times students faced, and in this case, to help address their emerging needs.

According to pre-pandemic research, the issue affected more than one in every four undergraduates nationally, and COVID-19 both exposed and further exacerbated these challenges. From there, the numbers only worsened: According to the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, nearly three in five respondents to its 2020 #RealCollege Survey reported experiencing basic needs insecurity, with nearly half reporting housing insecurity alone. Mental health and food security also showed worrying trends—and yet 52% of respondents said they never applied for aid because they simply didn’t know how.

Today, even with the lockdown behind us, basic needs insecurities remain a reality for a staggering number of postsecondary students. Data from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, released earlier this year, confirmed millions of students experience at least one form of basic need insecurity. From my own previous experience as a student affairs practitioner, I knew there were many more students in need than the ones who were counted in the college's records. Therefore, I can confirm we should expect the actual need to be even greater than what the data are able to tell us. Further, much of the data most commonly cited have yet to look at basic needs holistically. It’s also important to recognize the stigma associated with using basic needs services and how that may create artificially low numbers of students who report basic needs insecurities or access services.

What’s New

Now in effect, our new Basic Needs Initiative strategy moves away from questions of prevalence to focus on building long-term, sustainable solutions. The strategy incorporates insights, feedback, suggestions and findings from current and past grantees, grantee partner institutions, peer funders, field experts and students. As a postsecondary funder, we know investing in students’ basic needs sets families up for long-term success, and going to college should be synonymous with obtaining resources that allow you to fully focus on your studies. That’s why, through strategic grantmaking and investing and our work with partners in the field, the Foundation ultimately aims to reach a state where the Basic Needs Initiative is no longer necessary, and why the new strategy looks at a ten-year horizon for reducing by 10% the number of students who experience an insecurity.

We know we can’t reach this goal alone, though, nor should we—many more stakeholders across higher education must take active roles to truly decrease basic needs insecurities for postsecondary students. It’s time for the entire ecosystem, including institutions, states, funders, partners across agencies, researchers and academics, policymakers, advocates, data analysts and everyone else eager to roll up their sleeves, to come together.

The Basic Needs Initiative Theory of Action outlines the next steps we are confident will make a difference for students across the country living with basic needs insecurities. Our hope is that this ambitious vision will encourage partners to join us in reaching this goal; I am confident that, together, we can realize it.

The first request for proposal (RFP) for this new round of grants will begin in early 2024, and additional RFPs will be released over the coming years. The final RFP will be available in early 2025. Our team will also continue to consider proposals shared through our open letter of inquiry process.

Diving Deeper Into the Strategy

Read the Basic Needs Initiative Theory of Action.

With the new theory of action, we will fund high-impact solutions within three strategic areas, operating under the principles that student voice and leadership are key drivers of systemic change and that current realities and context matter. The strategic areas and an example of a grant that aligns with each area are provided below.

Strategy 1. Growing Data Capacity: Incorporate use of data to understand effectiveness of basic needs interventions on student experiences, nonacademic outcomes and academic outcomes.

Sample Grant - College Housing Northwest (CHNW)

With its focus on housing for college students, CHNW stands out from providers who often focus on other populations, such as families or the elderly. CHNW’s Affordable Rents for College Students program partners with state agencies and institutions to offer resources for stable housing to postsecondary students who are homeless or housing insecure while in school. With funding from ECMC Foundation, CHNW will implement a data management system to better understand how the housing program affects students’ academic and non-academic outcomes.

Strategy 2. Scaling Effective Practices: Leverage, improve and modernize local, state and federally funded basic needs services that align to the evolving needs of today’s students and expand use of services.

Sample Grant - National Student Legal Defense Network (Student Defense)

Student Defense is working to streamline access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in California and other states by using information already available in federal student aid applications to identify SNAP-eligible postsecondary students. The project aims to increase SNAP enrollment numbers and therefore students’ access to much-needed food security. Student Defense will develop a model for other states to leverage federal student aid information and thereby reduce barriers and obstacles to access benefits.

Strategy 3. Informing Policy Reform: Advance the understanding of policy change to remove structural barriers to basic needs services and promote student success.

Sample Grant - University of California, Irvine

At the University of California, Irvine, Professor Carolina Valdivia will lead a national research study about undocumented student experiences on campus with basic needs, and in developing recommendations for how support systems can be customized and improved to meet these students’ needs. The study will also consider how students navigate and cope with three key issues impacting their mental health: the federal limitations to accessing COVID-19 relief funds, the potential rescission of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA, the federal program that provides eligible undocumented individuals with access to a temporary work permit and relief from deportation), and the threat or reality of a family member’s deportation.

What’s Next

In addition to expanding our grants portfolio, ECMC Foundation’s Basic Needs Initiative will lead convenings to cultivate idea-sharing among diverse groups of stakeholders. Along the way, our program-related investment team will work toward other new solutions in both the nonprofit and for-profit sectors.

Learning and evaluation are built into the Foundation’s strategic framework; we know from experience that this commitment ensures our work effectively reaches our goals, advances a learning agenda, and aligns with our priorities. Multi-year evaluation planning will thus begin in January 2024, and Foundation staff will work with external partners on setting parameters for measurement guidelines for all grantees moving forward.

Transforming the college experience for the well-being of the whole student requires every stakeholder in the field to play a role and work together to achieve lasting systemic change. As we look toward our 2033 goal, we do so knowing much of this work is still in the early stages, and more advocacy, research and funding are deeply necessary. As we prepare to fund more projects that align with our three strategies, we urge potential partners to think big and boldly to develop innovative solutions in 2024 and beyond. We will update our website regularly with new funding opportunities and invite you to subscribe to our newsletter to stay informed.

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