Community colleges play a vital role in higher education, offering affordable and accessible pathways to academic and professional success. However, many students face significant barriers outside of the classroom that hinder their ability to excel, like I did.
Like many of our students, I was a first gen, low-income college student who had periods of housing, food, and transportation insecurity. I remember working food service jobs so it would be easier to eat, needing to move constantly as rent got too high, and scrounging to afford my bus pass. At the time, I was unaware of any support offered by my college that could have made a difference. And even if I had known, I would have been too intimidated to seek them out.
Fortunately, things are changing. Colleges and universities are playing a larger role in helping students access basic needs supports, challenging stigmas, and normalizing support seeking behavior. As we start the semester, now is the time for community colleges to double down on creating a basic needs infrastructure so students can receive support before they are at risk of stopping out.
Why do we need a basic needs infrastructure?
Basic needs insecurities, including hunger, homelessness, and lack of childcare have a substantial impact on students' educational journeys. A recent study by the Community College Center for Student Engagement shows that 29% of community college students are food insecure, 14% are housing insecure, and 27% have had trouble paying their rent or mortgage. All these scenarios put students at an increased risk of not completing their credentials.
The same study shows that students who are facing these barriers are actually highly engaged on campus, and many are turning to their college for support. Of food insecure students, 44% reported receiving support from their college and 21% of housing insecure students reported their college helped them obtain housing. In short, students are turning to colleges as a first line of defense when trying to meet their basic needs.
Aside from student expectations that colleges will support them, states like California, Washington, and Illinois have implemented policies that require colleges to offer basic needs interventions. If this trend continues, more community colleges nationally will need to have a game plan in place to meet their legislative obligations.
Implementing Basic Needs Support Programs
To effectively support students' basic needs, community colleges can consider implementing the following programs and initiatives that have been used been effective in schools all over the country:
- Needs Assessment: Conducting regular surveys or assessments to identify students facing basic needs challenges can help you understand what needs are the largest, and how severely they are impacting students. This might be done through a formal needs assessment, welcome surveys, quick polls, focus groups, or exit surveys from students who are withdrawing from the college.
- Case Management & Basic Needs Specialists: Navigating public resources can be confusing, time consuming, and overwhelming for many students. Basic needs professionals, many of whom have social work backgrounds, can act as a personal liaison for students who need to know what resources exist and the best ways to access them.
- Food Pantries and Meal Programs: Establishing on-campus food pantries or meal programs can offer immediate assistance to students experiencing food insecurity. Collaborations with local food banks, grocery stores, and community organizations can help sustain these programs.
- Childcare Services: More than two million community college students are parents of children under 18. Establishing on-campus childcare centers or partnerships with nearby licensed childcare providers, and linking to subsidized or reduced-cost options, can help alleviate the financial burden on student-parents and create a supportive environment for their academic success.
- Transportation Support: Lack of transportation can impede students' ability to attend classes regularly. Community colleges can collaborate with public transportation authorities to provide discounted or free passes or establish shuttle services connecting campuses and public transit hubs. Only 57% of community colleges have transit stops within walking distance, which also means that community college may need to work with transportation partners to expand service, implement shuttles, or explore alternative transportation options.
- Housing Support: Collaborate with local housing authorities, nonprofits, and private organizations to offer emergency housing assistance to homeless or housing-insecure students. Additionally, community colleges can explore the feasibility of partnerships with nearby affordable housing complexes.
- Emergency Funds: Many institutions have emergency funds or “gap” scholarships available that are one-time, lower dollar value supports that can be used to offset unexpected expenses like a fixing a flat tire or needing to buy groceries after a job loss.
What’s key with any basic need support system is communicating to students frequently and early about what resources are available to them, and emphasizing that they are free or low cost. This encourages help seeking behavior and normalizes students receiving support from the college.
Four Community Colleges Leading the Charge
It can be overwhelming to think about creating basic needs initiatives from the ground up. Fortunately, there are dozens of community colleges across the country who are creating real solutions that we can look to for inspiration:
A. Needs Assessment & Basic Needs Specialists: College of Lake County felt that their basic needs resources were being underutilized. To understand how they could better connect with students they used a design thinking process to understand what students needs were the most prevalent, what impacts they were having, and what was keeping them from seeking help. Through looking at reasons why students withdrew, listening sessions, surveys, and focus groups they redesigned their support offerings to be more visible and easier to access.
As an outcome, CLC hired a Community Resource Advisor (CRA) who helps students connect with both internal and external resources. If a student needs help, CLC staff members can raise an alert in EAB’s Navigate CRM that instantly connects a student with the CRA. With the help of the CRA, students referred for holistic support interventions are retaining at the same level as their peers.
B. Food Assistance & Childcare: Holyoke Community College not only offers students a food pantry, they also have created Homestead Market. The store is a collaboration between Holyoke Community College, Aramark Dining Services, and the college's Thrive Student Resource Center. The Thrive Center operates the student food pantry and helps students apply for food subsidies through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Homestead Market is the first store at a public college in Massachusetts to accept SNAP benefits.
Additionally, HCC offers free child watch for children aged 3 months to 12 years while their parent is on campus through the Itsy Bitsy Child Watch program. Students can request child watch directly from HCC’s website for either recurring or emergency care.
C. Transportation: Launched in August 2021, the GoPass Pilot program helps LA County community college students improve access to school by providing unlimited, free transit rides in participating districts on the Metro and via 13 other LA County transit agencies.
A 2021 study performed at Rio Hondo College showed that students who receive free transit passes have up to 27% higher graduation rates than those that don’t. And, because GoPass is not just a way for students to get to and from school, it also provides improved access to jobs, health care, extracurricular activities, and essential services for students.
D. Housing & Emergency Support: In partnership with the City of El Centro (CA) and the Imperial Valley College Foundation, Imperial Valley College developed the Lotus Living Tiny Homes Project to provide affordable housing options to students identified as homeless. The institution leveraged funding from the state of CA and federal emergency housing funds to build a 26-unit tiny home village where students can reside while they complete their education. Students must only pay a flat rate for utilities.
Studies show that students who face housing insecurity have increased rates of anxiety and depression, worse health outcomes, and lower GPAs than their peers who are housing secure. Removing barriers like housing insecurity increases a student's likelihood to persist and succeed.
Measuring Success and Continuous Improvement
To ensure the effectiveness of basic needs support programs, community colleges should establish mechanisms for monitoring and evaluation. Key performance indicators can include tracking student retention rates, graduation rates, and academic performance. Regular feedback from students through surveys and focus groups will also help colleges identify areas of improvement and ensure that support services remain relevant and responsive to evolving needs.
For example, EAB partner College of Lake County has used Navigate data to understand the impact alerts created for students who may need basic needs support. By tracking the volume of interventions, and the impacts on retention and persistence, CLC now knows where their areas of greatest need are.
Watch this short video to learn how one partner increased graduation rates by developing supports for students aging out of foster care:
Community colleges have a unique opportunity to support students' basic needs and create an environment where all learners can thrive. By providing assistance with food, housing, and childcare, community colleges can significantly enhance students' chances of success and reduce barriers to higher education. It is crucial that community colleges continue to prioritize and expand their basic needs support initiatives, ultimately fostering an inclusive and supportive educational experience for all students.
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