How one college uncovers student needs beyond the classroom

What do students really need to succeed in college? The key is to ask them, says Cara Crowley, the vice president for strategic initiatives at Amarillo College. Noting that few colleges have insight into individual students’ housing, food, transportation, and child care gaps, The Chronicle of Higher Education recently highlighted how a 10-question survey is helping the Texas-based community college connect students with the resources needed to complete their college degrees.

National data has helped focus colleges’ attention on students’ basic needs and their implications for college success. A report published this year by Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University—reflecting responses from more than 195,000 students at 202 colleges and universities in 42 states—found that 3 in 5 students experienced basic needs insecurity. However, some campus leaders have struggled to get campus-level data to facilitate action, citing gaps in infrastructure and expertise.

Related: Survey finds 3 in 5 college students report basic needs insecurity >

Amarillo College—which has long attracted national attention as a model for supporting low-income students—has prioritized student-data collection in the last five years, arriving at a “cost-effective” in-house assessment, the Chronicle reports. Crowley says the short questionnaire is a crucial tool for supporting Amarillo’s 9,000 students, noting that within 72 hours of receiving the school’s August 30 survey, at least 99 students had revealed that they were homeless.

Without the survey, “I don’t know that we would know,” she told the Chronicle, adding that “it’s critical we address these basic life needs before they drop out.” Graduation and transfer rates have nearly doubled at the college since it began collecting the student data.

Replicable and actionable

Sent prior to each semester, the voluntary survey asks students about the past month of their day-to-day life, touching on factors like students’ ability to cover rent, mental health-related expenses, and child care. Amarillo stores the answers in its information system and notifies its Advocacy and Resource Center and Counseling Center if a student indicates they are approaching or in crisis.

Amarillo also uses the resulting campus-level insights to pursue partnerships with local nonprofits and city governments to help alleviate obstacles that interfere with students’ success at school. For instance, after finding that 20 percent of its students lacked transportation, the college collaborated with city and transportation officials to guarantee bus routes to campus and free rides for students, faculty, and staff. Amid the ongoing pandemic, the data has also informed officials about how to distribute nearly $16 million in federal stimulus aid.

Related: COVID-19 intensifying college students’ housing, food insecurity >

Crowley says that Amarillo’s approach could offer a model for other colleges, especially since it required no additional staff. Moreover, she estimates the resulting student-retention gains are saving Amarillo upward of $350,000 annually.

Students, meanwhile, say the personalized assistance has been crucial to helping them stay on track to graduate. “There are so many people … if they have the resources, they can get their potential, and they can be who they want to be,” Zeinab Ali, a 37-year-old Amarillo College student and mother of two from Somalia, told the Chronicle.

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