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Centering Community Collegesí Work in Acknowledging and Addressing Basic Needs Insecurity to Promote Student Success

by Katharine M. Broton - January 18, 2022

When it comes to recognizing and addressing the fundamental role that basic needs play in studentsí college experiences and ultimate success, higher education has a lot to learn from our nationís community colleges.

As we state in our introduction to the series, its often the case that when researchers study causative factors and analyze metrics of student success, they often dont capture the intersubjective experiences of students. Or, the assumptions of who students are, and therefore what they need to succeed, is based on an outdated notion of college student.  An important starting point is how students articulate their personal goals of success.  Although the lack of degree completion is often viewed as a failure, in many cases it reflects the realities of student lives, that 2/3 can only attend part-time and they have a multitude of responsibilities, or their material lives require more than academic interventions.  This weeks commentaries in different ways center on how students experience and navigate their education, along with the importance of developing analytical frameworks that differentiate community college students from the analytical norm of 18-22 years old pursuing a baccalaureate degree. In different ways, they both seek to ground the discussion of equity in the community college by placing students lives in the center. We look forward to the conversations that these commentaries inspire. 

- Robin G. Isserles and David Levinson

Too often, higher education leaders and scholars seek to imitate elite colleges and universities when searching for ways to best promote student success. This focus on relatively privileged institutions and their students often fails to fully acknowledge the strengths, weaknesses, and challenges that a majority of todays college students carry with them, including substantial work experiences, family responsibilities, and limited financial resources (Lumina Foundation). When it comes to recognizing the fundamental role that basic needs play in students college experiences and ultimate success, higher education has a lot to learn from our nations community colleges. Community colleges are vital to American higher education, the communities they serve, and our nation, writ large. They provide a crucial access point for individuals seeking upward mobility, a new profession, or a more affordable path to a bachelor's degree. Community college leaders and educators, in particular, have long understood that students come to the classroom not as a blank slate, but with unique lived experiences, skills, and responsibilities, and thus tend to approach student success more holistically.

It is increasingly clear that basic needs insecurity, including insufficient or inadequate food, housing, transportation, high-speed Internet, and other personal necessities, is a significant problem in higher education. A growing body of evidence indicates that approximately half of undergraduates are struggling to make ends meet (Baker-Smith et al., 2020; Broton, 2020; Nazmi et al., 2018), and these material challenges are associated with poorer academic achievement and attainment, mental health problems, and limited social integration (Broton, 2021; Broton et al., in press; Hallett et al., 2019; Wolfson et al., 2021). Because of longstanding structural inequalities and discrimination in the United States, however, some groups are at an increased risk of basic needs insecurity; these include those who identify as Black, Indigenous, people of color, LGBTQ, or women, those who grew up in poverty or foster care, and students with significant responsibilities, including student parents and working students (Baker-Smith et al., 2020; Broton et al., 2018). Given Americas highly stratified higher education system, students who are at an elevated risk of basic needs insecurity are overrepresented at our nations two-year or community and technical colleges (Baker-Smith et al., 2020; Broton & Goldrick-Rab, 2018)institutions that are underfunded by both public and philanthropic sources in absolute and relative terms (Dowd & Sheih, 2013; State Higher Education Executive Officers Association, 2021).

Recognizing the relationship between the structural or institutional contributions to poverty and the daily lived experiences of their students, community college leaders are paving the way in implementing basic needs insecurity initiatives despite limited financial resources. Indeed, when higher education leaders and educators understand that students struggles with basic needs insecurity are symptomatic of larger social issues rather than personal weaknesses, they are more likely to take action (Broton, Miller, Goldrick-Rab, 2020). Moreover, community colleges are teaming up with researchers to learn about and advance evidence-based programing (Broton, Goldrick-Rab, Mohebali, 2020; Goldrick-Rab et al., 2021).

Efforts to alleviate basic needs insecurity and promote student success must acknowledge the whole student and tailor responses appropriately, not just in community colleges but across all sectors of higher education. For some students, a relatively low-touch intervention, such as a single disbursement of emergency grant aid or meal vouchers, is enough to get them through a rough patch (Broton, Goldrick-Rab, Mohebali, 2020; Rosen, 2020; Sumekh, 2020). In other cases, wraparound case management services, often located within a benefits hub or single point of contact, are needed to not only address current material hardships but also prevent future instances of basic needs insecurity (Crawford & Hindes, 2020; Daugherty et al., 2016; Hallett et al., 2019; Lowery-Hart et al., 2020; Price et al., 2014). Campus pantries, the most ubiquitous response, are a great entry point, but their power really lies in the ways in which they can serve as a gathering space that builds community and belonging while serving as a gateway to more structured supports (Cady, 2020; Crawford & Hindes 2020).

While many community college leaders are working tirelessly to help their students fulfill their basic needs so they can concentrate on their education and life, higher education cannot solve this problem alone (even with increased investments in the existing structure). We need greater alignment of social and education policies. Our nations best tool to fight food insecurity, SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), is 25 times larger than the nations largest charitable antihunger organization, but it reaches fewer than half of likely eligible students because of a confusing and onerous application process (Duke-Benfield & Chu, 2020; Government Accountability Office, 2019). The recent temporary emergency change to SNAP has expanded eligibility among students with low incomes and limited resources and should be made permanent (Gilkesson, 2021). For years, my colleagues and I have argued for the expansion of the National School Lunch Program into higher education (Goldrick-Rab et al., 2016). Students rely on this support to help them concentrate on their studies and improve academic success throughout their K12 education (e.g., Hinrichs, 2010), and the expansion to higher education could improve college success. Frankly, more must be done to address the current housing affordability crisis in the United States, but efforts are under way to help community college students access Department of Housing and Urban Development resources (Goldrick-Rab, 2020; Goldrick-Rab et al., 2021). Of course, these public initiativeslike those implemented on individual campusesmust be carefully designed and implemented in a way that reduces stigma and increases belonging, ensures stability of support, and limits administrative burdens. 

Basic needs insecurity is a significant problem undermining investments in higher education. Community colleges arent the only place where students are struggling to make ends meet (Allen & Alleman, 2019; Jack, 2019), but they are a source of leadership and vision given the ways in which they are acknowledging and addressing the problem so they can better serve all students. We can learn a lot from our community colleges, but they cannot do it alone. It is time for us to match their efforts with significant investments.


Allen, C. C., & Alleman, N. F. (2019). A private struggle at a private institution: Effects of student hunger on social and academic experiences. Journal of College Student Development 60(1), 5269. doi:10.1353/csd.2019.0003

Baker-Smith, C., Coca, V., Goldrick-Rab, S., Looker, E., Richardson, B., & Williams, T. (2020). #RealCollege 2020: Five years of evidence on campus basic needs insecurity. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/2019_RealCollege_Survey_Report.pdf

Broton, K. M. (2020). A review of estimates of housing insecurity and homelessness among students in U.S. higher education. Journal of Social Distress and Homelessness, 29(1), 2538. https://doi.org/10.1080/10530789.2020.1677009

Broton, K. M. (2021). Poverty in American higher education: The relationship between housing insecurity and academic attainment. Journal of Postsecondary Student Success, 1(2), 18-45. https://doi.org/10.33009/fsop_jpss129147

Broton, K. M., & Goldrick-Rab, S. (2018). Going without: An exploration of food and housing insecurity among undergraduates. Educational Researcher, 47(2), 121133. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X17741303

Broton, K. M., Goldrick-Rab, S., & Mohebali, M. (2020). Fueling success: An experimental evaluation of a community college meal voucher program. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/BunkerHill_Report.pdf

Broton, K. M., Miller, G. N. S., & Goldrick-Rab, S. (2020). College on the margins: Higher education professionals perspectives on campus basic needs insecurity. Teachers College Record, 122(3).

Broton, K. M., Mohebali, M., & Lingo, M. (in press). Basic needs insecurity and mental health: Community college students dual challenges and use of social support. Community College Review.

Broton, K. M., Weaver, K. E., & Mai, M. (2018). Hunger in higher education: Experiences and correlates of food insecurity among Wisconsin undergraduates from low-income families. Social Sciences, 7(10), 179. https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci7100179

Cady, C. L. (2020). If not us, who? Building national capacity to address student food insecurity through CUFBA. In K. M. Broton & C. L. Cady (Eds.), Food insecurity on campus: Action and intervention (pp. 3353). Johns Hopkins University Press.

Crawford, S., & Hindes, N. (2020). The trampoline of public benefits: Using existing resources to fight food insecurity. In K. M. Broton & C. L. Cady (Eds.), Food insecurity on campus: Action and intervention (pp. 138166). Johns Hopkins University Press.

Daugherty, L., Johnston, W. R., & Tsai, T. (2016). Connecting college students to alternative sources of support: The Single Stop Community College Initiative and postsecondary outcomes. Rand Corporation. https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1740-1.html

Dowd, A. C., & Shieh, L. T. (2013). Community college financing: Equity, efficiency, and accountability. The NEA 2013 Almanac of Higher Education, 3765.

Duke-Benfield, A., & Chu, S. (2020). Addressing student hunger through policy change: Leveraging federal food benefits to support college completion. In K. M. Broton & C. L. Cady (Eds.), Food insecurity on campus: Action and intervention (pp. 240264). Johns Hopkins University Press.

Gilkesson, P. (2021). Frequently asked questions about SNAP and students. The Center for Law and Social Policy. https://www.clasp.org/blog/congress-must-repeal-snap-student-work-food-requirements

Goldrick-Rab, S. (2020). Beyond the food pantry: Supporting community college students with affordable housing vouchers: Lessons from the field. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/01/HousingVouchers_formatted_FINAL_SC.pdf

Goldrick-Rab, S., Baker-Smith, C., Clark, K., Dahl, S., Brescia, S., & Williams, T. (2021). A first look at the impacts of the college housing assistance program at Tacoma Community College. The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/CHAP_FirstLook_Brief.pdf

Goldrick-Rab, S., Broton, K., & Brunjes Colo, E. (2016). Expanding the National School Lunch Program to higher education. Wisconsin HOPE Lab. https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Wisconsin-HOPE-Expand-Lunch_Program.pdf

Government Accountability Office. (2019). Food insecurity: Better information could help eligible college students access federal food assistance benefits. https://www.gao.gov/products/gao-19-95

Hallett, R. E., Crutchfield, R. M., & Maguire, J. J. (2019). Addressing homelessness and housing insecurity in higher education: Strategies for educational leaders. Teachers College Press.

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Jack, A. A. (2019). The privileged poor: How elite colleges are failing disadvantaged students. Harvard University Press.

Lowery-Hart, R., Crowley, C., & Herrera, J. (2020). Amarillo College: Loving your students from enrollment to graduation. In K. M. Broton & C. L. Cady (Eds.), Food insecurity on campus: Action and intervention (pp. 222239). Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lumina Foundation. Todays student. https://www.luminafoundation.org/campaign/todays-student/

Nazmi, A., Martinez, S., Byrd, A., Robinson, D., Bianco, S., Maguire, J., Crutchfield, R. M., Condron, K., & Ritchie, L. (2018). A systematic review of food insecurity among U.S. students in higher education. Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition, 14(5), 725740. https://doi.org/10.1080/19320248.2018.1484316

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Rosen, M. (2020). The American Federation of Teachers Local 212/MATC FAST (Faculty and Students Together) Fund. In K. M. Broton & C. L. Cady (Eds.), Food insecurity on campus: Action and intervention (pp. 5483). Johns Hopkins University Press.

State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. (2021). State higher education finance: FY 2020. https://shef.sheeo.org/report/

Sumekh, R. (2020). Student action and nonprofit partnership: The Swipe Out Hunger story. In K. M. Broton & C. L. Cady (Eds.), Food insecurity on campus: Action and intervention (pp. 115137). Johns Hopkins University Press.

Wolfson, J. A., Insolera, N., Cohen, A. J., & Leung, C. W. (2021). The effect of food insecurity during college on graduation and type of degree attained: Evidence from a nationally representative longitudinal survey. Public Health Nutrition, 122. https://doi.org/10.1017/S1368980021003104

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 18, 2022
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 23955, Date Accessed: 2/1/2022 2:08:10 PM

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About the Author
  • Katharine M. Broton
    University of Iowa
    E-mail Author
    KATHARINE M. BROTON, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in the Departments of Educational Policy & Leadership Studies and Sociology (courtesy) at the University of Iowa. She studies how students pay for college and the implications of college affordability. In her research, she uses multiple methods to examine the role of poverty and inequality in higher education as well as policies and programs designed to minimize related disparities and promote college success. She is best known for her work on basic needs insecurity among college students, including the recent book Food Insecurity on Campus: Action and Intervention. Her work has appeared in Educational Researcher, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, Community College Review, Change Magazine, and The New York Times, among others. The National Science Foundation, Kresge Foundation, Lumina Foundation, and others have supported her research.
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