For many low-income and first-generation students, challenges beyond academics—like paying for books or securing reliable housing and food—are the individual bricks in the larger wall blockading their ability to persist and complete their degrees. Disparities in college completion don’t result from one single barrier between enrollment and graduation. Rather, it's when many of these bricks pile up on top of each other that prevents students from succeeding without help.
Many less visible equity barriers are tied to financial insecurity: Pain points students are often hesitant or embarrassed to talk about. You can’t wait for students to raise their hand and say, “I need help,” especially when they don’t necessarily know who to ask. Fortunately campus leaders can ease this burden by putting systems in place that ensure students know where to go for help. Three of our partners shared how they did this with the strategic use of technology, ultimately making a tangible impact in the lives of the students most in need of support.
Achievement gap implies that the onus for the disparate outcome is on the student. That is, they failed to achieve something, and therefore, there exists a gap. Equity gap, on the other hand, refers to any disparity in a metric like graduation rate or term-to-term persistence along racial, socioeconomic, gender, or other major demographic groupings. Instead of, “what did the student do wrong?” we’re working together with our partners to ask, “what processes, policies, strategies, etc. did the institution put in place that created or exacerbated these disparities by race, gender, socioeconomic status, etc.?”
1. Flag students in need of textbook aid
When students see the long list of textbooks required for their courses, many wonder how they’ll afford this considerable expense, which can be hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year.
In a 2018 study of 1,651 college students, the vast majority (87%) indicated that the cost of textbooks and course materials had “somewhat of an impact” or “a big impact” on their financial situation. As a matter of necessity, many students may even delay or forgo purchasing textbooks altogether. What can their schools do to help make sure they don’t fall behind as a result?
Student success leaders at Texas Southern University (TSU), a public HBCU with 7,600 undergraduates, knew that textbooks were a burdensome expense for some students, but struggled to identify those students and connect them with aid. During a 2018 audit of freshman advising and support center utilization, TSU’s Executive Director of Student Academic Support Services, Dr. Charlene M. James-Piper, saw that an overwhelming number of first-time freshmen without textbooks did not have access to assistance resources—and their academic performance suffered as a result. TSU didn’t have a formal process in place to address this gap in resource delivery, and the burden affected both students and the first-year advisors trying to support them.
In spring 2019, TSU first-year advisors standardized a list of questions to use with freshmen, including one that asked if they needed help with textbooks. While this process was effective in proactively identifying a need, it only benefited freshmen.
In Fall 2019, TSU created a new “Needs Textbook” alert in Navigate. In just one semester, advisors and faculty flagged more than 200 students in need of textbook support—across all academic years—using this alert. TSU’s Academic Skill Center (ASC) connected these students with support and resources, including coaching on how to stay on track in a class after falling behind due to not having the textbook.
Dr. James-Piper noted that this process change has had a significant positive impact on students’ mental health and access to broader support. It has also improved the moral of advisors, who now have a better way to support their students. She said that having a clear process in place for students to access textbook aid has reduced their anxiety, and outreach from the ASC has introduced students to additional resources they weren’t aware of like academic coaching and financial aid application support.
2. Provide emergency aid to housing insecure students
Housing insecurity impacts all facets of life and academic life is no exception. Without reliable access to a quiet sleep and study space or Internet to complete assignments, it’s not surprising that housing insecure students struggle to graduate on time—less than 20% of basic needs insecure students graduate in five years. This problem is especially acute for community college students. A survey of 4,000 American community college students indicated that over half experienced some form of housing insecurity in the past year, including difficulty paying rent and utilities, while 13% experienced some form of homelessness.
To better understand their students’ housing situation, Germanna Community College used the Navigate Student app’s quick poll feature to survey students. In the fall semester, GCC sent students a quick poll asking, “In the past year, have you not known where you are going to sleep?” Over 700 students responded, with 15% indicating “Yes.” A counselor contacted these students and sent them information on how to access housing assistance, including an emergency hotline and instructions for requesting emergency aid.
In one instance, the counselor received a response from a first-generation student who was living in his car three nights a week and couch-hopping the other nights. Then, an accident totaled his car, depriving him not only of a roof over his head, but also a means of getting to campus. He was left homeless, faced with expensive car repair bills and only $40 to his name. The counselor helped him complete an emergency aid application, coordinated a place for him to stay through the end of winter, and provided gas cards to help him get to school. GCC reported that the student is now earning a 3.5 GPA and is on track to graduate in May and transfer to a four-year university in the fall.
3. Improve the efficiency of an on-campus food pantry
Like housing insecurity, food insecurity is disconcertingly high on U.S. college campuses and impacts a student’s likelihood to succeed. Studies estimate that 20% of U.S. college students have very low food security, and these students are 15 times more likely to fail a class. One increasingly popular initiative to address the hunger crisis is establishing an on-campus food pantry. The number of on-campus pantries increased 290% from 2015-2017. But how can schools ensure their pantry is operating effectively to serve the students who need it most?
Watch: Meeting students' basic needs
Sacramento State University’s (Sac State) non-profit student association, Associated Students, Inc. (ASI), runs the on-campus food pantry, providing students with food and basic necessities at no cost. Historically, employees used a complicated point-of-sale system and had students fill out paper forms, which was time-consuming and didn’t allow for long-term data analysis.
After implementing Navigate in the fall of 2018, efficiency greatly improved. Employees can now “check in” students using Navigate’s kiosk mode without having to ask for the same information every time, since Navigate already consolidates existing student data. Staff at Sac State can now see the analyze the most popular times, days, and months when students visit the ASI Food Pantry and gain insights about student classifications (academic year, full-time status, GPA, etc.) accessing the pantry with Navigate’s tag and category features. This data helps them stock the pantry more strategically and focus their outreach on specific populations who are most likely to benefit from its services. In the future, they hope to use GPA data to understand how pantry access helps students perform better academically and graduate sooner.
Thanks to these strategic improvements, the number of student visits increased by 43% from 2018 to 2019, comprising 9,074 total visits from 2,164 students in one year. These numbers translate into a better college experience by allowing students to reallocate their financial and mental resources.
Sac State’s Director of Student Engagement and Outreach, Reuben Greenwald, has seen the impact of this firsthand. He shares:
Dismantle barriers to equity, brick by brick
The scale of the equity challenge in student success can feel intimidating when so many campuses are forced to operate with constrained resources. It can be frustrating to wonder if long-term initiatives will even impact the students on campus now. But if there’s anything we can learn from these three schools, it’s that we can better use technology systems to help current underserved students overcome the financial barriers standing in the way of their educational goals.
How does your school stack up?
Use our advancing student success and equity goals diagnostic to identify key opportunities for improvement within your student success strategy.