How Community Colleges Can Act to Support Students Facing Hunger and Homelessness

Students facing basic needs insecurities work hard but struggle with finances and academic success. Community college leaders must act. 

Increasing degree completion rates is a top priority for community colleges. A new report from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and Temple University—based on data from a survey of 43,000 2-year and 4-year students at 66 colleges across the country—suggests that, for many students, basic needs insecurities are significant barriers to their success. In the last 30 days prior to the survey, 42% of community college respondents experienced food insecurity. Over the past 12 months, 46% were housing insecure and 12% reported experiences with homelessness. More concerning, only 41% of community college students experienced no insecurities.

The data show that food- and housing-insecure students work hard but struggle with finances. Relative to other students, those reporting basic needs insecurities spend similar amounts of time in class and studying. However, they are more likely to work 40 or more hours each week and work overnight shifts. To compensate, they give up sleep and leisure time. It should come as no surprise that their grades suffer. Community college students who reported earning F’s were 3 times more likely to report an experience with homelessness in the past year than students who earned A’s.

In the face of these alarming statistics, colleges across the country have provided hope by developing promising efforts designed to address basic needs insecurities and increase degree completion. While policy changes at the federal and state level are necessary to ease students’ financial burdens long-term, there are many steps that colleges can take to help students now.

Collect evidence to understand the problem– information on the prevalence and types of student needs is essential for colleges to effectively plan a response. Interested colleges can participate in a fall 2018 survey of basic needs by contacting Christine Baker-Smith at In addition, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab has developed a guide for colleges interested in creating their own surveys of basic needs.

Organize to take action– institutional action is most effective when a guiding committee or task force—that includes senior-level administrators, college staff, representatives from community organizations, and government officials—is accountable for helping students with basic needs insecurities. Students should also be included; their perspectives are critical to design supports that address actual needs and that are delivered in ways that encourage students to accept help.

Design programs to proactively support students– effective basic needs programs are known, accessible, and useful. Advertising is necessary to make students aware of available supports and also helps to normalize services and reduce stigma. For example, while some campuses hide their basic needs services in an attempt to provide privacy, locating resources in a central, visible space increases both accessibility and usefulness. Many college faculty have begun to include basic needs language and information on course syllabi. Accessible and useful supports minimize barriers by delivering services in a welcoming, non-judgmental environment and by providing simple, easily understood applications and program requirements. The Advocacy and Resource Center (ARC) at Amarillo College provides an excellent example of proactively supporting students. ARC conducts outreach, requires only brief applications, offers fast turnaround times, and is located in centrally-located, glass-enclosed offices.

Partner to grow and develop programs– many colleges have found it easier to develop and scale supports through partnerships with community and government agencies. For example, Tacoma Community College and the Tacoma Housing Authority have partnered to make Section 8 housing vouchers available to homeless and near-homeless students. Likewise, Houston Community College and the Houston Food Bank cooperatively offer food scholarships.

Community colleges interested in learning more about how to address these issues should attend the next #RealCollege conference, and those who want to share stories of their students’ challenges should check out the #Voices4Change campaign—both can be found This work is vital for increasing student success and completion and providing the educational opportunities that are at the heart of the community college mission.

 Jed Richardson, Ph.D. is the Acting Director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab at the University of Wisconsin. He is an applied microeconomist focused on education policy. He can be reach at

 This summer the HOPE Lab will evolve into the HOPE Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University.You can follow their work here.

About ACCT Now

Community College Insights & Perspectives

ACCT Now is the go-to resource for issues affecting community colleges. In addition to reporting and research, you’ll have access to of-the-moment legislative updates. We’ve also included articles, reports, and research from outside sources that benefit the ACCT community.

Washington D.C. skyline