Student Voices, School Solutions: Basic Needs as a Prerequisite to Student Success, 9:45 - 10:45 a.m.

By Erin Powers, Director of Communications

“The value of student support services has been demonstrated as playing a key role in student success,” Jeff Webster, director of research at Trellis Company, told attendees at this Tuesday morning session. In his presenation, Webster dove into key findings from Trellis’ Student Financial Wellness Survey, released today, which looked at many aspects of financial wellness, including perceptions of institutional support. The survey found that almost a quarter of students lack a plan to pay for their next semester. These students “were more likely to be first-generation students, to be female, and to be enrolled part-time,” Webster said.

The survey also uncovered that nearly two-thirds of students who responded have trouble getting $500 in cash or credit to meet an unexpected need within the next month. “That person is much more likely to have trouble staying in school,” Webster noted.

Only 23% of students surveyed had not run out of money within the last year, while 34% had run out of money five or more times in the 12 months prior to the survey. Half of respondents had shown signs of being housing insecure within the same 12-month period.

“We wanted to really take a harder look at the lived experience… we wanted to understand how those finances affect performance,” Webster said. A second Trellis study, their Financial Security Study, conducted qualitative interviews with 72 undergraduates from all college sectors between January and October of 2017. 

“What we found is that students need to work, but that their jobs or the hours at their jobs are inconsistently available,” he explained. The study also uncovered that low food security impacts students by elevating stress and that students seek social outlets to de-escalate their stress—such as going out to a dinner with friends that they may not be able to afford—which just exacerbates the problem. 

Students cope with low food security, the study found, by making adjustments to their living situations, leveraging social networks and seeking external help, and taking “academic shortcuts” such as typing a term paper on their phone to avoid the expense of buying a computer, or forgoing buying necessary textbooks in order to cut costs, which ultimately takes a toll on their academic success. 

Katherine Doss, interim vice president for college services at Palo Alto College in San Antonio, TX, then discussed the importance of helping senior administrators and the broader campus community to understand the value of this work. Palo Alto College, through an advocacy task force, came up with the idea to form a Student Health Advocacy Resource and Engagement (SHARE) Center to support students and give them help with social services, career advising, financial literacy and wellness, financial assistance and emergency aid, and more. 

Palo Alto College based its framework for serving under-resourced students on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. “Students can’t focus in the classroom if their basic needs are not met … and that was the framework we used to support our students,” Doss said. Palo Alto College partnered with several different external organizations to better support students, including Goodwill, a local food bank, a local grocery store, and secured funds from outside providers to offer students assistance in the form of emergency aid.

“As higher education professionals we have a responsibility to try to support our students because they are brave enough to come to us and want to seek an academic credential, so we need to support them and these student services are a wonderful way to do that,” Doss said.

Deborah Agee, director of financial aid at the University of California–Davis (UC Davis), then shared with attendees that her administration was shocked to discover that 47% of its students were either low or very low on the food insecurity scale. The university was already doing a lot to help on this front, but their efforts weren’t centralized and it could prove difficult for students to know where to find these resources. 

As a result, UC Davis one year ago set up a physical location for the Aggie Compass center, which provides students with access to basic needs resources to help alleviate the chronic stress resulting from efforts to find and afford nutritious food. UC Davis also created the Aggie Blue to Gold Financial Wellness Program which, in addition to leading large presentations and events to help with topics like budgeting, money management and financial aid, also provides online counseling to students, as well as one-on-one in person counseling. 

“As a financial aid director, I can see what we’re providing to our students in terms of resources,” Agee said. “Not only are our students eligible for all the federal programs, but we have a very robust system of state funding,” she added. 

This is why campus leadership was so surprised to discover such high levels of food insecurity. While the financial aid packages were intended to provide enough for students to aptly cover the cost of food, some students were not taking out the loans they were offered for fear of taking on debt or were sending excess financial aid funds that should have gone toward books and food home to their families who were also struggling to make ends meet. “We make assumptions about what students are going to do,” Agee said, “... but if they do not follow those assumptions, our financial aid strategies begin to fall apart.” It’s important, she told attendees, to monitor students thoughts and behaviors to get the full picture.


Publication Date: 6/25/2019

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