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Rising to the Challenge on Student Basic Needs Work

Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

Ten years ago, most college students short of money for food would have difficulty finding a food pantry on campus. Food insecurity wasn’t a widely recognized problem in higher education and “student basic needs” wasn’t a field of practice.

As we reach the end of another tough year, we deserve to take a moment to be grateful and proud that times truly have changed. It’s now common knowledge among college administrators and staff that many students experience shortfalls of the essentials. We have federal data that put numbers to the problem, most institutions have a food pantry on campus, and at least 400 colleges and universities employ a staff member dedicated to supporting students’ basic needs. Indeed, in several states those staff are required and supported by legislatures. Dr. Sara Goldrick-RabDr. Sara Goldrick-Rab

In other words, we have a growing number of institutions that have gotten real about solutions to secure basic needs, overcoming the stigma and fear associated with being a place that educates students living in poverty. I call a place that does this a #RealCollege. They deserve to be the focus of public attention and philanthropic giving and the priority for governments, instead of the tiny number of already highly-resourced gated colleges always dominating the news.

The growth in on-campus support for students’ housing, food, transportation, mental health, childcare, and related needs is both heartening and depressing. On the one hand it’s wonderful to see skilled professionals take to heart the lesson that students are humans first. My front row seat to that change has made me especially optimistic about the capacity of our sector to adapt and grow.

 On the other hand, the sheer magnitude of the challenge can be daunting. There are more than four million students who need help, yet most programs only serve hundreds. It’s also been hard to watch as some colleagues approach basic needs insecurity with little more than a bit of sweet charity, as if a quick fix (like a couple of cans of beans or a few meal vouchers) could ever counter the new economics of college. Students require and deserve far more than band-aids. They should only need to visit a food pantry once; after that they ought to be connected to programs like SNAP, financial aid, and related programs to meet their needs in an ongoing way.

What else can and should we do? What constitutes scalable and effective support for students’ basic needs? How can we assess where institutions are on their journeys to provide support? What makes a college truly “hunger-free?” These are hard questions to answer. Many are using program evaluations, case studies, and trying to learn directly from practitioners and students. With multiple research teams, I’ve collaborated with colleges and universities to test solutions like meal vouchers, emergency aid, basic needs centers, and so on. Now, in partnership with Believe in Students and Dr. Jesse Stommel, I’m co-creating a “masterclass” to support staff and faculty on the front lines who are trying to make sense of an emergent field and help them find their way.

There is more learning to come. In the meantime, we need to join together as a community to learn from each other and work to benchmark our efforts while also receiving and giving support to keep on pushing. That’s why this fall both Pennsylvania and New Jersey hosted basic needs summits for their institutions, and last week the California Community Colleges came together at the #RealCollege California convening. And it’s why in early 2024 Education Northwest is launching a new, free national community of practice for anyone and everyone who wants to learn and grow together.

That community of practice will use a basic needs implementation rubric released earlier this year by Education Northwest, with support from the ECMC Foundation. Derived from a national evaluation of current practices, it sets up meaningful guideposts and benchmarks that are responsive to where institutions currently are, while also introducing stretch goals to drive real progress. It has the potential to help colleges and universities push themselves towards effective implementation and help state leaders who are putting hunger-free campus legislation into practice. The rubric pushes basic needs staff to focus on four goals while providing examples of activities associated with each:

(1) Provide timely, accessible, and comprehensive basic needs resources and services with clearly navigable systems and outcomes.

(2) Provide student-centered approaches that alleviate stigma associated with utilizing basic needs resources and services.

(3) Provide targeted case management to help students navigate and access basic needs resources and services.

(4) Collect and use in-depth student data and demographics.

Let’s say I run a community college in Colorado and want to effectively support my students’ basic needs. According to that state’s Hunger Free Campus initiative I must implement four programs: a campus food pantry, SNAP enrollment assistance, collect and report information on student food insecurity, and hold one awareness event per year. In addition, it requires the institution to have two initiatives focused on increasing access to support, two focused on awareness, and two focused on service integration. These are helpful goals, and I may have already met them, but how do I assess the quality of the work we are doing? Is it likely effective or equitable?

That’s where the rubric comes in. For example, it would lead me to ask the following questions about the campus food pantry (or emergency aid fund, or basic needs center): How is it marketed? Does the marketing strategy include syllabus statements? Is it operated by a siloed team or in collaboration with other offices across campus? Is SNAP enrollment part of the work? What role do community partners play in its operations? What faculty and staff training has been provided to support students’ use of the pantry? What data systems are used to assess utilization and efficacy? Is it funded with a small one-time gift or sustainable revenue?

Asking these questions will help me understand whether we have a small initiative that can support a few hundred students a year, or one that will reach the much larger population of students facing food insecurity. It will help me move beyond checking boxes to much deeper learning and impact. In other words, it will push me to advance our work to support students’ basic needs at a time when students need help the most.

Students know that basic needs security is a journey, not a destination. It requires care and maintenance, and focused attention on the things that matter most. The community of practitioners on and off campuses around the country who strive to ensure that every student succeeds is growing and we all should be proud of that. The next step is to reach higher and work together. Let’s commit to that goal for 2024.

Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab is author of Paying the Price, College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, senior fellow at Education Northwest, adjunct professor at the Community College of Philadelphia, and Founder of The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.

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