Nearly every student is met with new social dynamics, academic demands, and living arrangements during their college years.
For some, the experience is an exciting opportunity to explore interests and broaden their horizons. For others, it comes with the challenge of securing even the most basic needs, from food, housing, and childcare to transportation, clothing, and technology, among other essentials.
This resulting inequity impacts student health, well-being, and the likelihood of college completion. According to the Institute of Education Sciences, literature reviews indicate that a substantial percentage of college students experience food insecurity (51% ) and face housing insecurity (45%).
ACUI member Phillip Smith, assistant dean of students for student basic needs at Rutgers University, was part of that population as a student. “I was both food and housing insecure, even though I was also a student-athlete,” Smith said. “It was student affairs staff members who helped me through some troubling times, including my mother living in a homeless shelter and my younger brother living with me on campus. Their assistance allowed me to graduate on time, take care of my family, and have job offers upon graduation.”
Smith was recently granted the CEHD Joe DuCette Dissertation Award for the best Ph.D./Ed.D. dissertation in the College of Education and Human Development at Temple University for his study, The Struggle is Real: How African American College Students Persist Despite Basic Needs.
Now, he’s teaming up with Stacey Givens, ACUI director of strategic initiatives and senior diversity officer, and Hannah Wilks, director of service learning and basic needs at the University of Colorado, to form ACUI’s newest community of practice: Student Basic Needs. The new online community will allow members to share ideas, ask questions, and collaborate.
“Now more than ever, college students face unique challenges making access to and equity in higher education harder due to rising tuition costs, evaporating government funding, and an antiquated financial aid system that has made basic needs insecurity one of the new norms,” Smith said.
Wilks, who founded the University of Colorado Boulder Basic Needs Center, part of the Division of Student Affairs, in 2022, hopes the community will help foster a better understanding of the pillars of student basic needs insecurities — including student development theory, financial aid, compliance, policies and processes, social work, and campus and community resources.
“Overcoming systemic barriers rooted in oppression and white supremacy is work that basic needs centers and our community will need to come together to learn from each other and find ways to organize collectively,” Wilks said. “ACUI members will benefit from a network of folks doing the work.”
Wilks said systemic and structural inequalities are why campuses nationwide now require basic needs centers to keep disadvantaged students enrolled and help them navigate access to resources throughout their lives. Dismantling long-held norms is vital, though difficult, work. “We need the best data we can find, experts in the field, and a roadmap for folks to follow,” she said.
To that end, some colleges and universities have created new positions for leaders in student basic needs, including the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, New York University, and the entire 10-campus University of California system, Inside Higher Ed reports.
Smith said Rutgers strives to become the East Coast’s leader in combating basic needs challenges: “Our friends out west have been doing this work for years, and we are just trying to catch up.”
The main Rutgers campus currently features a 700-square-foot food pantry and a mobile food pantry that delivers food to students across all campuses. In addition, the university recently hired two additional staff members to serve as student case managers. Smith is also working to ramp up online resources.
“We’ve created a comprehensive webpage that addresses many basic needs insecurities, including food, housing, well-being, childcare, and technology,” he said. “We have increased our social media presence and are looking at other ways to connect with students, faculty, and staff.
This fall, Rutgers will launch Pantrysoft, a system to manage inventory, check-ins, and case management for the pantry.
The Basic Needs Center at the University of Colorado–Boulder took root after student affairs staff seeking student food assistance built “pocket pantries” around campus, launching the pilot of a meal-swipe donation program, mobile pantries, and over about five years, the first food pantry on the campus. “Two years after the launch of our Buff Pantry in 2020, we were able to create and get funding for a new basic needs center,” Wilks said.
The Colorado Department of Higher Education granted the school Hunger-Free Campus status for meeting core program requirements and expanding to include financial literacy programs, virtual cooking demonstrations, hot meal events, and emergency housing needs for up to 18 students.
The Basic Needs Center also partnered with the University of Colorado’s Office of Financial Aid on direct student outreach efforts centered on supplemental nutrition assistance programs. In addition, the center hired a licensed social worker to help lead those efforts and coordinate referrals with the Student Support and Case Management office on campus.
“We are currently at the beginning stages of working to centralize all campus emergency funds to better manage the flow and provide students who need emergency support a single point of entry, rather than a campus shuffle,” Wilks said.
Through the new community of practice, ACUI will help bring ideas like this — and the people supporting them — together in the name of continued progress.
“Students sometimes just need someone to talk to, vent, and ask questions,” Smith said. “It’s up to us to be present, listen, and know about the local, regional, and national resources available to assist them. This could be a matter of life or death for some students.”
The Student Basic Needs community of practice is now open to anyone who wishes to join. Smith asked that ACUI members share the news of this new community with those who do similar work on their own campuses.
“Let them know that there is this community to share best practices, foster new ideas, and help make changes to institutional, state, and federal policies,” Smith said. “There is a home for this work — and it is ACUI!”