The latest federal data from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) highlights some of the critical challenges students face outside of the classroom when it comes to basic needs: roughly one in five undergraduate students (23 percent) and one in 10 graduate students (12 percent) are experiencing food insecurity, while 8 percent of undergraduate students and 5 percent of graduate students are experiencing homelessness. For millions of students, the struggle to meet their basic needs and maintain good academic standing is compounded by both personal and bureaucratic challenges.

No two students’ path to a college degree is the same, and it’s essential for higher education institutions to address student basic needs challenges, both as a matter of equity and student retention. As these institutions move from awareness of the diverse levels of insecurity among their populations to action, more work is needed to determine best practices that can serve students effectively and holistically.

At Ithaka S+R, we have explored how assessment efforts can lead towards a thriving student support ecosystem, and we are currently investigating how public and academic libraries are supporting communities with their basic needs, as well as how college fluency services can reduce bureaucratic barriers to needed support. In this post, we share what we have learned about student basic need insecurities, how institutions have responded, and what more needs to be done.

Moving the Needle

It has already been well demonstrated how challenging it is for students to meet their basic needs and maintain good academic standing due to higher rates of attrition and financial burdens, but how have institutions made efforts to help students in response? In addition to acknowledging the existence of these challenges, higher education institutions are actively implementing multifaceted initiatives to create a safety net for students, recognizing the pivotal role that well being and stability play in fostering academic success.

From establishing basic needs centers to developing comprehensive support programs, the educational landscape is undergoing a transformative shift toward holistic student care. For instance, common initiatives seeking to resolve food insecurity include campus food pantries, meal voucher programs, emergency assistance funds, and implementing outreach and information programs to help students access public benefits and community resources such as SNAP.

Although housing assistance programs are less common than campus efforts to address food insecurity, these initiatives continue to grow through community and nonprofit support, partnerships, and state legislations. For instance, the Higher Education Housing and Opportunities (HOUSE) Act, which took effect in Illinois in August 2022, requires colleges and universities to track and report data on housing insecurity and provide on- or off-campus housing during academic breaks for students facing homelessness or with foster care experience. Some institutions have also begun to provide support in other key areas of student services, including financial wellness education, access to technology, and affordable transportation to and from off-campus support services.

While the development of these resources constitutes a significant first step toward combating basic needs insecurity among students, their availability is not uniform across campuses, and they fall short in addressing the systemic challenge of basic needs insecurity in higher education. Student protests for affordable meal plans and improved housing opportunities only underscore this critical reality. Therefore, there is a pressing need for more comprehensive and sustainable solutions to address the challenges students face in meeting their basic needs and affording college.

New Directions

To meet the demand for comprehensive and sustainable solutions to basic needs insecurity, Ithaka S+R is seeking to develop actionable research and recommendations for institutions in their efforts to holistically support their students. As we continue, we hope to address several key questions:

  1. Effective practices: What are the barriers preventing students from accessing existing resources designed to address basic needs, and how can these barriers be broken? What are the preferred channels of communication for need-insecure students when seeking assistance, and how can support services be tailored to align with these preferences?
  2. Equity: How do higher education institutions tailor basic needs resources to meet the specific cultural and demographic needs of their diverse student populations facing basic needs challenges? What are the pillars for a successful basic needs initiative for different institution types, regions, and communities?
  3. Partnerships: How can newly created basic needs centers and coordinators work together with current institutional services to provide students with holistic basic needs support? How do partnerships between higher education institutions and community organizations contribute to the availability and effectiveness of resources addressing basic needs?
  4. Student self-advocacy: What factors influence need-insecure college students’ decisions to seek help, and how do these factors vary across different demographic groups? To what extent do social support networks, both on and off-campus, contribute to mitigating basic needs challenges among college students?

Has your college begun to think differently about student success and basic needs? Please get in touch via email ( or below in the comments to share about your evolving practices.