Addressing Social Conditions to Support Student Success: A Community College Imperative

How could a 25-minute drive in metro Phoenix impact life expectancy by 17 years? In Philadelphia, individuals in zip codes only five miles apart have a 20-year difference in life expectancy. How is this even possible in the most affluent country in the world?

Several years ago, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation engaged Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU)1 to map out life expectancy rates for more than 20 communities around the country. The resulting life expectancy maps show dramatic disparities within the analyzed areas. This phenomenon exemplifies the common saying that “your zip code is more important than your genetic code.”

We used to focus on individual responsibility or say it was “just bad genes” to explain why some people had adverse health outcomes, but now we know better. VCU Center on Society and Health very succinctly described how the gaps in health across neighborhoods stem from multiple factors:

  • Education and income are directly linked to health: Communities with weak tax bases cannot support high-quality schools and jobs are often scarce in neighborhoods with struggling economies.
  • Unsafe or unhealthy housing exposes residents to allergens and other hazards like overcrowding. Stores and restaurants selling unhealthy food may outnumber markets with fresh produce or restaurants with nutritious food.
  • Opportunities for residents to exercise, walk, or cycle may be limited, and some neighborhoods can be unsafe for children to play outside.
  • Proximity to highways, factories, or other sources of toxic agents may expose residents to pollutants.
  • Access to primary care doctors and good hospitals may be limited.
  • Unreliable or expensive public transit can isolate residents from good jobs, health and child care, and social services.
  • Residential segregation and features that isolate communities (e.g., highways) can limit social cohesion, stifle economic growth, and perpetuate cycles of poverty.2

So, what does this have to do with college student success? Everything.

If a student is often hungry or has unstable housing, grades will surely suffer, and adverse mental health challenges will increase. Lack of affordable housing near the college can lead to long commutes, which can increase challenges for working families. It is naïve for academic officials to believe their responsibility lies just in the classroom and that if students don’t come in ready to learn, it is their own individual problem.

These issues also tie to the success of the overall organization. Is your Academic Affairs team talking to your Human Resources team? With today’s shortages of affordable housing throughout the country, it is worth asking where our custodians and support staff are living. What about new teachers? Is their commute prohibitively difficult? Many community colleges face clear recruitment and retention issues, which are often derived from the same social conditions students face.

So, how do we tackle this? Through collaborations, partnerships, and getting creative.

A first step is to talk to both your staff and your students about their broader needs, such as food security and access to mental health care, transportation, utility assistance, housing, child care, and employment. Some may be afraid to disclose these problems, so engaging a third party to conduct listening sessions or anonymous surveys might be a good way to start.

There are a variety of partners in any community that can help, so make sure your staff knows who they are and where to go for help. In Arizona, for example, people can now dial 211 or go to for assistance in these areas.

Instead of having just a student health clinic, what about partnering with a community health center so both employees and students – and their families – can get primary care on campus? Most of these centers have sliding fee scales and accept all types of insurance, so a collaborative effort makes health care far more accessible for all. The college doesn’t have to run it—just partner with an organization that knows how to do so.

Co-locating housing on campus, for both students and entry-level staff, could also be beneficial. What if a new building had a community health center, a food pantry, and a day care center on the first floor, and four more floors consisted of mixed income housing? This solution would provide multiple sources of rental income and provide needed services all in one place. And what if the library had staff that could help people look for affordable health insurance and sign up for other social services online? Many places around the U.S. have free assisters, and librarians could easily learn how to connect them to these resources.

Another avenue is to look at nearby strip malls, city buildings, and/or community centers where services could be co-located. Community colleges don’t have to do it all or do it alone. Assess local resources and investigate what services could be jointly provided.

Communities and students have been through a great deal of stress and disruption over the past few years. The best way to move past these challenges and improve student success may be to partner with community resources and to think of your own assets in new and creative ways.

The Bridgespan Group infographic here, used with permission, further highlights the importance of addressing socioeconomic factors to improve students’ success in life and higher education.


1/2 Center on Society and Health. (2016, September 26). Mapping Life Expectancy. Virginia Commonwealth University.


Suzanne Pfister

President and CEO
Vitalyst Health Foundation


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