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Support for college students facing basic needs insecurity

Returning to college can be an exciting time of growth and a stepping stone to a brighter future. But for some students, challenges beyond the classroom can dull the shine of higher education — especially if they are college students facing basic needs insecurity.

A significant number of college students face issues with basic needs, including hunger, food or housing insecurity, homelessness and financial stress. In fact, according to the U.S. Department of Education, 23 percent of undergraduate and 12 percent of graduate students are experiencing food insecurity, while 8 percent of undergraduate and 5 percent of graduate students are experiencing homelessness.

Autumn Sanchez headshot
Autumn Sanchez

At highest risk of basic needs insecurity are marginalized students, including Black, Latine and Indigenous students; LGBTQ+ students; parenting and other nontraditional students; first generation students; and students with disabilities.

According to the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, “Student wellness in U.S. higher education is increasingly precarious. Rising tuition and declining student aid have threatened the ability of students to meet their most basic needs, and in many cases the students who are most affected by these dynamics are also navigating an educational system that was not designed for them …”

These challenges affect student success rates: Trellis Research found that approximately 48 percent of students who had experienced financial challenges while enrolled said they had difficulty concentrating on academics.

Fortunately, support is available if you or those you know need help. In addition to federal financial aid for college (check for eligibility), consider these resources.

Campus support. Many colleges have on-campus food pantries, emergency funds and counseling services. Students can reach out to the dean of student’s office, financial aid office or their academic advisor to learn about resources. For example, the UW–Madison Office of Financial Aid has information on basic needs on their website, and the Dean of Students also offers information on food, housing and financial support.

Community support. Local organizations and government agencies often provide support for students experiencing homelessness or food insecurity. In Dane County, for example, three places to turn to for housing information include The Road Home, the Homeless Services Consortium of Dane County and the Tenant Resource Center. There are also numerous community food pantries, mental health services and other programs in the area and across the state.

Self-care. It can be challenging, but for students experiencing stress related to basic needs insecurity, prioritizing health and well-being is essential. Connect with peers and create a support network when possible. Find affinity or identity groups that will embrace you. Consider your course load and determine if adjustments are needed.

Asking for help can be difficult. Students face unwarranted shame surrounding basic needs insecurity. It can help to find a trusted mentor on or off campus to share concerns with privately. Collectively, we can help decrease the stigma around unmet basic needs so every student can succeed.

The Lifelong Learner is a monthly feature written by UW–Madison’s Continuing Studies staff. Autumn Sanchez, UW–Madison adult student advisor, can be reached at autumn.sanchez@wisc.eduThis article first appeared in the Wisconsin State Journal on November 12, 2023.