Securing Students' Basic Needs So They Can Learn

By addressing students' basic need for food and housing, community college leaders will see an increase in student success.

Improving the degree completion rates of community colleges students is a pressing national priority that weighs heavily on the minds of community college leaders.  Dozens of programs and policies purport to help students stay in school by transforming the curriculum, rethinking advising, changing the terms of financial aid, leveraging technology, and so on.  But while some of these efforts are promising, none of them deal with the invisible yet terrible fact that a significant fraction of community college students are hungry and even homeless.

Students who have not eaten or slept before class have difficulty learning.  Scientists, parents, and teachers agree on this fact, and so in k-12 schools around the nation programs provide children with breakfast and lunch, support them with subsidized housing, and offer counseling and case management.  When they graduate from high school, however, those efforts abruptly end.

It is therefore unsurprising that recent surveys, including a national study at 70 community colleges in 24 states, find that as many as half of all community college students are suffering from food and/or housing insecurity.  An estimated 1 in 3 have so little access to food that they can be considered hungry, and an estimated 14% are homeless.  These students come to community college seeking economic security but are confronted with prices that are higher than ever, a paucity of sufficient work opportunities, and a lack of support for their basic needs.

These challenges are not isolated to community colleges serving large numbers of low-income students or those in areas with a high cost of living.  Rather, these problems are evident in every region of the nation, at community colleges with both high and low percentages of Pell recipients, and at those in both urban and rural communities.  One leading indicator of how many homeless students are on campus is the county’s unemployment rate, since it appears that what differentiates homeless students from others is whether they hold a job paying at least $15 an hour.  When work doesn’t pay sufficiently, things often fall apart.

While basic needs insecurity among students is an upsetting problem, it is one that we know how to address. Commonsense approaches should take priority and form the basis of a college’s retention strategy.  For example, a college can:

· Provide meal vouchers to the college’s cafeteria for those who cannot afford them

· Inform students about the availability of food stamps and help them apply

· Open a campus food pantry

· Partner with local universities to offer emergency housing in residence halls

Policy changes are needed as well. Many public benefits programs require recipients to work long hours, but college doesn’t count as work. That must change.  The National School Lunch Program, which effectively helps reduce child poverty across the country, should be expanded to operate at community colleges.  Housing authorities which govern access to subsidized housing should be directed to allow recipients to attend college full-time, instead of excluding them when they enroll.

By addressing basic needs for food and housing, community college leaders will communicate their understanding of the fundamentals of learning, and re-engage their communities in the effort to help all students succeed. Fulfilling the commitment to educational opportunity requires this work, and efforts must begin now.

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