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From Surviving to Thriving

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit our campuses in March 2020, many of us were abruptly made aware of the depth of basic needs insecurity among our students. This was also true for teachers and staff in our K-12 systems. Food insecurity, housing insecurity and homelessness are some of the biggest challenges facing our country, and the students in our schools are not immune to this reality. A persistent challenge that we worked on when I was in Boston’s city hall last year was food insecurity—more specifically, closing the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) gap. For various reasons that range from the technical to the cultural, individuals and families who qualify for food assistance often do not apply for and receive this assistance. In this work, I began to understand just how much we need to identify, locate and do more for those who are challenged by basic needs insecurity and find ways to better support them.

Our current students are increasingly facing these challenges, and our future students, both future 18-year-olds and future older students, will be arriving at our institutions having experienced these insecurities. How do we prepare for this current reality and for supporting an increasing number of students experiencing these challenges?

Fortunately, there is great work being done identifying the extent of these challenges and recommending ways to address them. This week, my inbox seemed to explode with reports and articles about basic needs insecurity in college and K-12. Below I share some highlights from a few of these.

First up, the phenomenal work from the Hope Center team at Temple (who just hired the always amazing Ashley Gray!). Their “Basic Needs Insecurity at HBCUs” report looks at the intersection of pre-existing racialized inequities with increasing basic needs insecurity exacerbated during the pandemic.

  1. Basic Needs Insecurity at Historically Black Colleges and Universities: A #RealCollegeHBCU Report

The report provides a really nice overview that defines basic needs insecurity, focusing on food and housing insecurity and homelessness. The team found that fewer than half of the students surveyed in the fall of 2020 who were experiencing basic needs insecurity were receiving public benefits, and few received help from their universities in applying for food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. The report shares student reflections on health, employment and families. As studies have shown, there are racial and ethnic disparities in COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and deaths, and the virus has disproportionately affected Black, Latinx, Indigenous and multiracial people. In addition, many of these students lost their jobs or experienced pay cuts during this period—with Black students being hardest hit. And when it comes to childcare needs, it is important to remember that one-third of all Black students and two in five Black female students are parents.

  1. The Boston Herald had an important and informative article on homeless K-12 Boston Public Schools students: “Number of homeless Boston Public Schools students climbs

The number of homeless BPS students has increased more than 25 percent in four years, with the overwhelming majority being students of color. The number increased from 3,200 in 2016–17 to 4,000 in 2020–21, which is approximately 11.2 percent of the students enrolled in 2021. During the pandemic, BPS has partnered with the city of Boston to provide housing vouchers for approximately 600 families. Ninety-five percent of homeless BPS students are students of color.

  1. In The Washington Post, this article brings us back to food insecurity, housing instability and childcare: “Biden administration urges colleges to use covid relief funds to meet students’ basic needs, imploring schools to use pandemic relief funds to assist with housing, food and other basic needs

The Department of Education has issued guidance to colleges on ways to use relief funds to help students facing food insecurity. The DOE is also allowing institutions to use financial aid data to identify, locate and do more for students who may be eligible for public benefits like SNAP. The article ends with a nice quote from Jill Biden: “For parents, especially moms, child care makes graduation possible.”

And following up on that line on childcare, here is a great report from WorkRise at the Urban Institute on the importance of childcare to students who are parents.

  1. Impacts of Extending Child Care Subsidies to Parents in Education and Training” at WorkRise (the Urban Institute)

WorkRise is a research-to-action network on jobs, workers and mobility hosted by the Urban Institute. As we know, education is an important determinant of economic mobility. Low-income parents are often challenged by a lack of affordable childcare. The report points out that many may be eligible for subsidies from the federal Child Care and Development Fund. However, states administering the program often prioritize working parents over those in school or training. A team of researchers at the Urban Institute will use microsimulation forecasting to estimate the effects of making childcare subsidies available to all parents in education and training.

For many of our students who are also parents, if they do not have childcare, they cannot go to school. Many are going to school to get a better job and to make a family-sustaining wage and to get beyond basic needs insecurity.

When higher ed is working the way many of us want it to work, we are improving the life outcomes for our students. For a growing number, we are moving them toward basic needs security and from surviving to thriving.


Mary Churchill is the former chief of policy and planning for Mayor Kim Janey in the city of Boston and current associate dean for strategic initiatives and community engagement at Wheelock College of Education and Human Development at Boston University. She is co-author of When Colleges Close: Leading in a Time of Crisis and an ICF certified leadership coach.

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