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Research Report

Addressing College Students’ Basic Needs

August 15, 2018

A cross-campus study found that 47% of students at four-year institutions experience food insecurity and enrollment projections indicate that this population will continue to grow.

Students cannot be expected to achieve academic success or personal wellness until they meet their basic needs. Supporting food and housing security on campus should be a crucial priority for chief student affairs officers and other senior leaders.

More on this topic

This resource is part of the Address Food and Housing Insecurity on Campus Roadmap. Access the Roadmap for stepwise guidance with additional tools and research.

We identified three specific areas for campuses to address students’ basic needs security:

  1. Reduce barriers that prevent students from connecting to resources
  2. Cultivate a campus-wide referral network
  3. Explore sustainable funding and staffing models that can scale to meet students’ growing demand for basic needs support services

Section 1: Maximizing Connectedness to Existing Resources

Resources already exist on campus and in the community to help basic needs-insecure students without new investments or programs. Campuses can centralize information, provide guided application support, and create structured channels for surplus resources to support struggling students.

Recommendation 1: Centralize Information

Students can be overwhelmed when trying to find resources to address their food and housing needs. The burden of independently tracking down these resources can feel especially high while also balancing school, work, and personal obligations. The University of California Berkeley (Berkeley) built a Basic Needs Resource Portal to simplify that process for students.

Basic Needs Committee engages in one-time audit of available resources for students experiencing food and/or housing insecurity

Resources are compiled and organized into an easily accessible web portal

Educate campus partners about website and market widely across campus

Recommendation 2: Provide Guided Application Support


of students flagged for benefits screenings visit Single Stop
of students flagged for benefits screenings visit Single Stop

Confusing or daunting application processes can also prevent students from connecting with available resources. Providing guided application support is critical, particularly for students who are new to the process of requesting public benefits assistance.

Single Stop is a nonprofit organization that partners with colleges and other organizations to help connect low-income individuals with public and community resources. In the Single Stop model, the institution sets up a Single Stop office on campus, providing space and at least one dedicated staff member. The staff member receives training, tools, and support from Single Stop.

Recommendation 3: Create Structured Channels for Surplus Resources

22 million

pounds of food get thrown away on college campuses every year
pounds of food get thrown away on college campuses every year

Colleges and universities often have surplus resources that could be useful for students struggling with basic needs insecurity. For example, 22 million pounds of food get thrown away on college campuses every year, presenting a ripe opportunity to capture unnecessary waste and connect surplus food with students who need it.

Institutions should create structured channels to connect students with surplus campus resources. Food-handling regulations and campus catering guidelines often present challenges to recapturing excess food, but California State University, Fresno (Fresno State) found a way to work around its campus’s food-handling regulations. Fresno State’s catering service doesn’t allow leftover food to be boxed up and transported to the food pantry, so they decided to bring students to the events to take surplus food.

Section 2: Cultivating a Campus-Wide Referral Network

Build a network of care on campus by educating staff and faculty who interact with students. Equip these campus partners with ready-to-use information about campus resources and a streamlined process for referring students to centralized supports.

Recommendation 4: Identify Key Frontline Partners

The first step in cultivating a comprehensive infrastructure for basic needs support is to engage the campus community by building a network of frontline partners. By bringing in members of the campus community, campus leaders can reach more students who need help—not just the ones who step forward to central resources or case management staff. Many different staff and faculty across campus will observe students struggling.

For instance, dining hall staff may notice a student taking leftover food from the dining hall, or a financial aid officer might speak with a student who is worried about making ends meet. EAB recommends that institutions identify these frontline partners and equip them with information necessary to connect students with resources.

Recommendation 5: Provide Just-in-Time Information

Institutions should build a culture of awareness, support, and care around students’ basic needs. Over the past decade, colleges and universities have been successful in building such a culture around topics like mental health and sexual violence. Similar education efforts are needed for basic needs insecurity. Awareness of basic needs insecurity is just emerging for many on campus, and recognition of the problem is a prerequisite to building a supportive campus culture. EAB recommends that institutions develop just-in-time education materials for all faculty and staff.

Recommendation 6: Facilitate Easy Referrals

Once individuals across campus identify a student is struggling to meet his or her basic needs, the next step is to make it easy for them to refer the student to the appropriate resources. The University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) eases the referral process with its basic needs referral postcards. The card contains a short list of resources for hungry students and informs them where to go for help.

The cards are widely distributed to staff across campus who may encounter students experiencing basic needs insecurity. Staff are instructed to give a card directly to students they suspect might be struggling to meet their basic needs and encourage the students to reach out to the appropriate resources for help.

Postcards distributed widely to staff:

  • Financial aid/bursar staff
  • Residential life
  • Special populations center
  • Student legal services
  • Center for international students
  • Academic counseling

Section 3: Exploring Sustainable Funding and Staffing Models

Colleges and universities should be prepared to scale resources to address growing demand. Find a sustainable funding or staffing model that’s right for your campus.

Recommendation 7: Pursue Collaborative Partnerships with Development

Finding sustainable and adequate funding presents a significant barrier to starting new programs and initiatives to support basic needs insecure students. EAB research revealed that initiatives around basic needs are ripe for fundraising. Today’s donors give to causes aligned with their values, often in the areas of social justice, education, and poverty. Some alumni recall personally struggling with finances in college and may be attracted to a cause that resonates with them. Regardless of motivation, today’s donors want to know how their gift helped individual students on campus. Donors want to hear stories about the people helped by their donation, information about how the donation will be used, and the results achieved with the gift.

“A Millennial’s philanthropic endeavors aren’t fueled by big incentives. Instead, they become involved in philanthropy for mostly altruistic intentions. In fact, they desire to establish connections with the causes they become involved with.”

Millennials: The Cause Generation, YouCaring

Recommendation 8: Identify the Right Staffing Model

As institutions support increasing numbers of students experiencing basic needs insecurity, EAB recommends exploring more sustainable staffing structures. Institutions are using a variety of structures, including teams, specialized positions, and dedicated offices. Each model varies in the scale of service it can provide and the resource investment required. This section reviews each staffing model.

Implementation Toolkit

This toolkit will help guide your institution’s work to support basic needs-insecure students, explore creative fundraising opportunities, and review progressive staffing options. Within the toolkit you’ll find worksheets, guides, and more.

Support food and housing security on campus

Educate campus leaders about the issue and reduce barriers to accessing support.

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