Students often struggle with balancing their personal, professional, and academic responsibilities, including affording their most basic needs in conjunction with course expenses. Recognizing this reality, we will be offering a basic needs module for the Ithaka S+R local student surveys starting in spring 2020.

In late 2018, colleagues and I worked in partnership with a cohort of community colleges to survey their students about their goals and challenges. They indicated great need, and not all struggle equally; those who have been historically underserved or disadvantaged often encounter greater challenges throughout their college experience and have commensurately greater needs. These challenges can have a substantial impact on academic success if they are not addressed. 

Many of these issues translate to four-year institutions as well. The latest figures on food and housing insecurity from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice confirm many of these struggles across the higher education sector. Across 86,000 student respondents at 123 two- and four-year institutions across the United States, researchers found that:

  • 45 percent of respondents were food insecure in the prior 30 days (48 percent at two-year institutions; 41 percent at four-year institutions)
  • 56 percent of respondents were housing insecure in the previous year (60 percent at two-year institutions; 48 percent at four-year institutions)
  • 17 percent of respondents were homeless in the previous year (18 percent at two-year institutions; 14 percent at four-year institutions)

At Ithaka S+R, we work with academic and cultural communities to serve the public good and navigate change through collaborative research and consulting. Our local graduate and undergraduate student surveys have been fielded at dozens of institutions since first launched in 2014, and the results have been used by partner institutions to both communicate the value of the library towards student success objectives and to better understand and support student needs. As we announced in a webinar and post earlier this month, our local student surveys will continue to focus primarily on students as learners, with a core questionnaire centered on their information practices as well as their perceptions of the role of the library.

So, why are we adding a basic needs module to this library-led survey initiative? In short, it’s a practical, equity-focused step toward helping libraries and their institutions understand and support the student experience. As Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor at Temple University and founding director of the Hope Center, summed up in a recent interview, “Students are humans first. [This] means that if you want somebody to learn, you do have to recognize that their basic needs have to be met. And you can do it because you’re a caring person. You can do it because you view it as just. Or you can do it because it’s the most economically efficient thing to do.”

To this end, we have worked in consultation with the Hope Center to develop a module on students’ basic needs, including an assessment of homelessness, housing security, and food security, which any college or university can add to their locally customized versions of the surveys. While this module is completely optional, we believe that many colleges and universities will find it valuable to have a straightforward way to assess some of the critical basic needs of their student populations, enabling them to develop interventions as necessary. 

In addition, based on what we have learned from this work about other kinds of challenges that students face, we have added some new items to the core questionnaire as well. Specifically, we have added new questions about the relative ease or difficulty associated with navigating college resources and services given that students’ information needs extend far beyond their coursework. We believe that these questions will help institutions better pinpoint this needs and develop appropriately targeted support services. 

For those institutions that run one or more of the student surveys this spring, we will, for the first time, place local responses in context with other participants’ anonymized results. We are aiming to build a cohort of 10-15 participants, which would allow us to also publish a public-facing research report with aggregate results, which we hope would serve as a useful community resource much like our national faculty survey reports. If you are interested in participating in the local surveys—student and/or faculty—in the upcoming academic year, please email me at