Colleges staff up to address basic needs insecurity

To help address students’ housing, food, and financial struggles, colleges and universities are hiring dedicated “directors of basic needs” to oversee resources and outreach for students experiencing poverty and other barriers to academic success, Inside Higher Ed reports.

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The role emerged from overwhelming demand for more services and support, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated hunger, homelessness, and other gaps. “In the past seven years, I went from being a team of one, on one-year grants and with no staff, to now running a basic needs center where we have 10 professional staff, including me,” said Andrea Mora, University of California (UC) Irvine’s director of basic needs.

Expanding basic needs resources

Campuses across the UC and California State University systems have long had state-funded basic needs centers, EdSource reports. Seeing a rise in student poverty, the state last year further expanded that to the California Community Colleges, requiring each of its 116 campuses to establish or expand basic needs centers in February 2022 and to hire at least one basic needs coordinator by July 2022.

Related: New report finds community college students struggling to afford basic needs, highlights institutional support >

UC Irvine’s Mora notes that the basic needs coordinator role was a step in her trajectory from student leader and advocate for low-income and undocumented students to her director position in a system that considers itself a model for meeting basic needs. The UC system’s Basic Needs Initiative focuses on halving the number of students experiencing basic needs insecurity by 2025, a mission it calls “one of the largest anti-poverty and economic justice efforts in its history.”

The director role is crucial to this mission, says Garret Naiman, associate vice chancellor and dean of students at UC Santa Cruz, as “it adds visibility to…the programs that our university can provide to students” and “provides some leadership around multiple multitudes of issues that are connected to basic needs.”

Recognizing the value in having this sort of dedicated role, the University of Pittsburgh, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and New York University have also expanded their basic needs programs and hired directors of student basic needs. John Beckman, ​​senior vice president for public affairs and strategic communications at NYU, notes that the director not only helps connect students with necessary help but also advises on policies related to food accessibility.

Related: Georgetown Scholars Program nears $20M goal to permanently fund emergency aid for first-gen and low-income students >

The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University says it has identified 400-some basic needs-focused roles across U.S. colleges and universities, including around 60 director or assistant director titles.

“More four-year public institutions need to take note and need to continue to push for this type of work,” says Blake Weiss program director for basic needs at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. “It’s important for us to have a person in place to lead the support system that’s there.”

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