by Kimberly Yavorski

Studies indicate that about half of all college students have experienced basic needs insecurity in the past year. This is an obvious educational crisis, but what can college and university administrators do to help? Kimberly Yavorski answers that question in this article, and also covers:

  • Why we should care
  • Common barriers to aid
  • Remove the stigma
  • Know your students
  • Institutional resources
  • Partner with community
  • One Stop resource
  • Engage faculty and staff
  • Change the culture
  • Consider an accelerated program
  • Be proactive

Why We Should Care

Students worrying about basic needs don’t have the time or energy necessary to devote to classwork and are often forced to drop out.

“The success of the community depends on our ability to get students through graduation or transfer,” said Russell Lowery-Hart, President of Amarillo College.

We often forget that college demographics have changed over the past few decades: almost 40% are 25 or older and about 26% are raising children. “Most schools are structured for the students we were, not for students we have. If Higher Ed is to survive, [it needs to] provide a pathway to the middle class,” Lowery-Hart added.

Van Wilson, Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Experience and Strategic Initiatives, VA Community Colleges (VCCS) agrees. “The students you are serving today aren’t like you,” he said. “You can’t work your way as a waitress through college and earn enough money to take care of your family, and pay tuition and fees, and pay child care. Since we truly believe that this post-secondary opportunity is a connector to a family sustaining wage, then we’ve got to help students make that connection.”

Under Lowery-Hart, Amarillo College has seen tremendous results. “The equity gap has closed completely for Hispanic men and women and African American women,” he said. Completion rates have gone from the teens to 48%, with a goal of 70% by 2020 — and this goal appears realistic. Lowery-Hart says he expects to achieve in the mid to upper 50% next fall. “We set a big goal. We knew it would require us to rethink everything we’re doing — to rethink our entire structure.” While it sounds simplistic, he refers to it as “loving our students to success,” by making students feel important and cared for.

Common Barriers to Aid

Many students don’t realize they are eligible for federal programs such as WIC and SNAP and even fewer know how to navigate the application process. Others may know about resources but lack transportation to access them.

Sometimes students don’t utilize available programs because they are simply too busy surviving to have time to navigate the red tape. But by far, experts say, the biggest barrier is the stigma that surrounds being poor. Marissa Meyers, Research-Practitioner at Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, said it simply:

“Students aren’t taking advantage of supports due to shame.”

Remove the Stigma

At many institutions, most students receive some form of financial aid. This is accepted as the norm and no one thinks twice about it. Ensuring that students have a safe place to live and access to adequate nutrition should fall into the same category, but unfortunately, too many students are made to feel that lacking sufficient resources for survival is a personal failure.

“The more you speak out about it, the less stigma surrounds it,” said Meyers. A first step is bringing the issue out in the open. All it takes is for one person to share their story to encourage others to admit their struggles and talk about how the system failed them. She said that when they do, it’s important that administrators “listen and hear their students’ struggle instead of trying to hide it.”

Tips for removing the stigma include:

  • Publicize services available on campus.
  • Post resource lists in public places or on syllabi to get a dialogue started.
  • Organize or host relevant information sessions and encourage students to attend to further the conversation.

This type of open dialogue will also encourage students who are reluctant to make use of programs. Lowery-Hart said, “Normalize the use of resources so there’s not a stigma. The more it is normalized, the more students will use the resources.”

Photo by Tim Gouw on Unsplash

Know Your Students

Lowery-Hart offered simple advice:

“Find ways to hear who your students are and what they need.”

For example, at Amarillo they learned that class schedules were a barrier so they adapted to include accelerated classes.

When students at VCCS with GPAs higher than 2.0 don’t return, Wilson said, “We know it’s life getting in the way and not necessarily just the academic barrier.” That’s not to say there is an easy solution. “While there will be systemic approaches, strategically, it’s not going to be one-size-fits-all, there has to be some ability for this be a very organic ecosystem that meets the needs of varying types of institutions.”

Institutional Resources

“Remove at least one life barrier.”

This basic advice from Lowery-Hart is in fact the most common way schools help their students. More than 700 colleges and universities have food pantries on campus.  While this is helpful, a diet solely of shelf-stable food does not provide adequate nutrition and is useless to students lacking a kitchen. Adding money directly to student meal accounts, allowing students to donate unused swipes, or providing a food scholarship (as Houston Community College recently did) may be more useful supports.

Consider other barriers to success besides food. Other common needs include housing or transportation vouchers, on-campus day care, lending libraries or book scholarships, or even emergency grants to cover unexpected life events. Free classes or workshops on nutrition, cooking, and financial literacy training are useful to all students, but can be life changing for those on a tight budget. Keep some housing/dining facilities open over breaks for students who might otherwise have none at these times.

Partner With Community

Many administrators want to help students, but funding for these programs is limited. That’s where community partnerships come in. Lowery-Hart said making sure students are connected with appropriate resources is part of his job and offered a simple starting point to other administrators:

“Have a meeting and invite all the non-profits in your community. Tell them who your student is. Why is she remarkable? Why is she different from students of the past? Ask for their ideas.”

He stressed the need to leverage and build relationships with community agencies, but said schools should go a step further. “Pick up the phone and say, hey, I’ve got a student…” Over the past few years, Amarillo established partnerships not only with social service agencies but also with other service professionals students may need such as mechanics, accountants, and lawyers. When there is no “wiggle room” in one’s budget, seemingly unrelated issues can have a large impact on whether a student succeeds.

When word gets out that there is a need, the community may approach the school. Meyers reported that sometimes developers with unused housing want to take advantage of tax breaks by offering it to low-income students. While this presents a challenge for administrators who don’t know what to do with these offers, taking the time to explore the option is a win-win situation. Partnering with national programs such as Swipe Out Hunger make it easy to support students and eliminate the need to reinvent the wheel.

Swipe Out Hunger

One-Stop Resource

Students need a place to go to learn about local, state and national programs that provide food, housing and healthcare, and also how to apply for them. Over two million students who are likely eligible for SNAP did not even apply. Lowery-Hart pointed out that in Texas alone, $8 billion in aid went unclaimed last year.

This will look different at each institution. Some colleges may only need a staff member dedicated to helping students find available resources. Others may need a comprehensive facility like the Advocacy Resource Center at Amarillo College that offers food, clothing, books, social services (both on and off campus), and referrals to outside agencies.

Higher Ed Institutions already provide many services. Combining them into a single “student success center” that includes not only basic needs support services but also academic resources, financial aid, and career services, schools can normalize these services and make it more likely they will be utilized.

Engage Faculty and Staff

Meyers said, “Before you can truly change the outlook for college students and truly address the issues, you need to have a buy in” from your staff. Amarillo College does this through poverty training for professors and staff so they know what signs to watch for and what they can do to help students with basic-needs insecurity. This provides an “early alert” system to help students before their life situation affects their education. Students find it easier to ask for or accept help from those who are nonjudgmental. Simply adding a resource list to syllabi and/or stating you are there to listen can make a difference.

Change the Culture

Lowery-Hart prioritized the culture change at Amarillo, taking the bold move of putting resources in a highly public space. The school has been so successful in its efforts, many schools look to them for advice; they now host an annual summit that attracts about 40 schools a year.

VCCS, which is in the early stages of implementing student supports, also has support from leadership. Wilson said that unlike other schools he has heard about, VCCS received little pushback from staff. He attributed this in part to Chancellor Glenn DuBois’ “absolute commitment to removing non-academic barriers. “

Consider an Accelerated Program

Again, Lowery-Hart’s advice in simple: “Help them get through as quickly as you can.”

At Amarillo, this means GenEd courses are all eight-week sessions; students take two classes at a time, which allows them to stay more focused. Classes meet four days a week, so they are engaging with it every day and retaining information more effectively. “They have hope,” said Lowery-Hart.  They believe “they can do anything for eight weeks. The majority of students wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The City University of New York (CUNY) also has an accelerated program and reports three-year completion rates almost double that of a comparison group, at a lower cost per graduate. Among African American and Hispanic men, the three-year rate differential was even greater. Students enrolled in CUNY’s program were more likely to attend full time, had higher GPAs and retention rates, and overall earned more credits. They also had higher transfer and bachelor’s degree attainment rates.

Be Proactive

Supports are most effective when put in place before students are in crisis mode. At Amarillo, staff reaches out in the summer, before students set foot on campus. Using predictive analytics they designed themselves, said Lowery-Hart, college staff reach out to potentially at-risk students with a simple message:

“We know you have the potential for success; we want to make sure nothing gets in your way, here are resources that may help.”

This article is from our May 15, 2019 issue. Read the full newsletter here!

About the author:

Kimberly Yavorski is a freelance writer who loves finding answers to obscure questions. She has always been a reader and believes that there is always something new to discover and learn, if we only take the time to look. She believes that we all can and should be part of the solution by contributing in whatever way we can. Her writing covers topics such as parenting, education, history, science, social issues and travel.


Bunker Hill College webpage on Single Stop services:

Supporting Community College Completion with a Culture of Caring: A Case Study of Amarillo College:

Accelerating Community College Graduation Rates: A Benefit–Cost Analysis:

Postsecondary Pathways Out of Poverty: City University of New York Accelerated Study in Associate Programs and the Case for National Policy. RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, 4(3), 100-117. doi:10.7758/rsf.2018.4.3.06

Independent research report on CUNY ASAP program:

CUNY ASAP program info:

Education statistics:

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