Over the last few years, colleges have paid much greater attention to student basic needs. That refers to the basics of life: food, shelter, transportation. Step one for many colleges in addressing those is often a food pantry. But food pantries require in-person presence, and many campuses really didn’t have that option over the last year.
Addressing basic needs at a distance is a different proposition.
One change has been the redefinition of basic needs to include internet access. The meme that made the rounds a couple of years ago with “wifi” listed as the lowest level of Maslow’s hierarchy stopped being a joke. When students are taking classes online, lack of reliable internet access is a real problem. Some students try to take their classes on phones, even writing papers that way, but that’s suboptimal at best. We’ve also had reports of students living in households where there’s one laptop, but two or three students and a parent dividing time online. In those cases, they technically have internet, but it’s not what they actually need to be able to work well.
Solving the internet access problem is a heavy lift. We were able to supply loaner laptops, which largely took care of the hardware issue, but broadband is tougher. Some of the telecom companies offered price breaks when the pandemic hit, but those have mostly expired. We looked into offering standalone mobile hotspots, but those are wildly expensive at scale. (Anecdotally, I’ve had nothing but trouble with them. They just cut off after a few minutes. I don’t know why they’re so much fussier than other devices, but it has been consistent. I suspect gremlins.) In the past, students would often hang out on campus to use the wifi, but that option went away with the pandemic. We’re rolling out wifi in the parking lots now, which can help students who can work with laptops in their cars; it’s not ideal, but it’s better than not having it.
Mental health services were an emerging need before the pandemic; they’re even more necessary now. They’re often addressed separately from the more traditionally ‘material’ needs, but they’re real. But getting that help can be difficult when home is crowded, especially if some of the issues are awkward to discuss or involve relationships with people known to others in the house.
On the bright side, transportation actually became less of an issue.
But food is a tricky one. My own college donated what it could from its pantry to the local food bank, and then set about giving students referrals. Recently it was able to bring back the monthly visit from the food bank truck, bringing fresh produce and baked goods to campus; students register for it, then show up and receive bags of food. It’s a terrific program. The first time the truck visited campus, I went to offer moral support, and struck up a conversation with an older gentleman who explained that he was a student. He was excited that he could bring home dinner to his kids that night. I could see his pride as he said it. That’s a need, too.
Connection with external agencies has become much more important. They were important before, of course, but with the effective loss of the campus as a home base, they took on new significance. I hope we’ll be able to continue to strengthen those relationships as campus operations gradually return.
Wise and worldly readers, how have you seen approaches to basic needs change in the past year?