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Basic Needs Support for Community College Students Is Urgent and Actionable

When COVID-19 hit and Joelene Jones lost her job after 17 years, she was still grieving the recent death of her mother. Suddenly without any income, medical insurance, or family to help during her time of need, Joelene understandably felt quite distraught.

As one of 2.7 million Californians who lost their jobs due to the pandemic, Joelene knew she wasn’t alone, but she felt that way. If something didn’t give, she would have to give something up – and she didn’t want that to be the pursuit of her educational and career goals.

Fortunately, Joelene was enrolled at Porterville College, a community college in California’s Central Valley, which offers students free, 24/7 virtual medical and mental health care through TimelyMD, the telehealth company I co-founded to meet the specific needs of college students. She turned to TalkNow, our on-demand mental health support service, to connect with licensed counselors about the anxiety she was experiencing. They listened to, supported, and gave her some tools and strategies to navigate her new, more stressful life circumstances.

Unfortunately, many community college students like Joelene are also frontline workers in medical, manufacturing, education and food service industries whose commitment throughout the pandemic has come at the expense of their own well-being.

Complicating matters, the Delta and Omicron variants have added a layer of uncertainty and urgency for students enrolled in two-year colleges who are already struggling with financial, housing, food or childcare insecurity. The #RealCollege 2021 report from the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University found that nearly 60% of community college students experienced basic needs insecurity. Responses from nearly 900 community college students we recently surveyed nationwide underscore the importance of boosting basic needs support now: 

      More than 70% have experienced emotional distress, stress and/or anxiety due to lack of basic needs.

      Medical and mental health care essentially tied as their most pressing basic needs, with one-third of students surveyed citing each. Food insecurity, clothing needs and housing rounded out their top 5 concerns.

      Just over half sought or used resources like a food pantry, transportation voucher, reduced price/free internet or affordable housing in the last year. 

One in four community college students nationwide are enrolled in a California community college. Historically they haven’t received the resources needed to support their physical well-being, mental health, or other basic needs, though there are reasons to be optimistic in the future.

California’s Budget Act of 2021 includes $30 million in ongoing local assistance funds to support expanding the availability of mental health services available to California community college students. As a result, California community colleges are transforming the way their students access medical care, mental health care and basic needs support as part of a recently announced partnership with The Foundation for California Community Colleges and TimelyMD, which aims to bring access to 24/7 telehealth services to students at all 116 colleges in 73 districts.

Students at 20 community colleges across the state already have access to our new basic needs service, which provides critical wrap-around support with a goal of increasing student well-being, engagement, and retention. Patient care advisors connect them with free or reduced-cost programs that provide support for services such as in-person health care, food and housing assistance, transit, bill paying, childcare, and legal services. During the pilot phase, care advisors helped students find low-rent housing, identify local support groups for a student-parent of an autistic child, connect them with food pantries on campus, and facilitate stays in a safe shelter.

Research shows that students whose basic needs go unmet are more likely to have lower GPAs, higher levels of mental health issues, and poorer health, in general. Any of these factors, let alone a combination of them, can threaten students’ academic success and affect their ability to remain enrolled, which puts at risk their long-term financial stability. Facilitating access to wrap-around support is critical to keeping students healthy and more likely to complete their degree.

Fortunately for Joelene, Porterville College is one of the institutions that offers the support she needed to persist and achieve a milestone in her educational journey. This spring, she completed her Associate in Science in Business Administration for Transfer (AS-T) in Business Administration and has applied to several schools in pursuit of her bachelor’s degree. She is also working as a counselor to inmates in a local prison, with a goal of someday joining the administrative team once she completes her education.

Without the support of her campus community and our counselors, she says she would have dropped a class and that would have delayed her graduation.

Asking for help, she said, “was the only option I had, but it turned out to be the best one." 


Luke Hejl is CEO and co-founder of TimelyMD

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