There is widespread evidence that students in higher education have difficulty meeting their basic needs for food, housing, childcare, health care (including mental health care), transportation, and technology. Having inadequate access to these resources is known as basic-needs insecurity (BNI). When students cannot meet their basic needs, it interferes with their ability to concentrate on their studies, build social connections, maintain mental health, feel that they belong in college, remain enrolled, and eventually graduate. Investments in proven strategies to reduce students’ BNI can therefore help improve their chances of success. This brief explores the interventions that can help reduce BNI among students in higher education and the emerging evidence behind these interventions.

BNI exists at every institutional type and credential level, but rates of BNI are particularly severe at community colleges and among students of color. In a recent, nationwide survey of 195,000 students conducted in the fall of 2020, more than one in three (34 percent) of all students reported that they had experienced food insecurity and nearly half (48 percent) had experienced housing insecurity. An alarming 14 percent of all students reported experiencing homelessness. Black, American Indian, and Alaska Native students experience BNI at rates 16 percentage points higher than White students (70 percent compared with 54 percent) and other students of color also face very elevated rates of BNI, as shown in Figure 1. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent inflation have also exacerbated racial and economic disparities and increased the costs of food, childcare, and transportation, making it even more difficult for students to meet their basic needs.

  1. Address students’ basic needs using approaches supported by a growing evidence base. 
  2. Ensure that financial aid programs support nontuition costs and that emergency aid is readily available. 
  3. Conduct more research on basic-needs interventions.

Read the full article about helping students meet basic needs by Bryce McKibben and Atif Qarni at MDRC.