Community college faculty, staff, and administrators have long been innovators and problem solvers. Indeed, the League for Innovation in the Community College (League) was founded over 50 years ago when B. Lamar Johnson brought together a group of leaders eager to work together to find innovative solutions to the challenges their institutions faced during a period of extraordinary growth in postsecondary education. Community colleges have continued this commitment to meeting student and community needs, whether through developmental courses for filling education gaps, baccalaureate degrees to meet local workforce needs, condensed program offerings designed to reduce time to completion, or services and support systems to address students’ basic needs. The work has not been without critique, e.g., trying to be all things to all people in the face of low completion rates. Yet community colleges persist, “shifting from a students must be college-ready philosophy to a student-ready culture that is prepared to meet learners where they are, regardless of the assets and advantages they bring and the challenges and barriers they face.”1 Now, however, initiative fatigue with the layered-on effects of the pandemic have left many faculty and staff spent.

During the past two years, as colleges pivoted to remote learning and working, the difficulties their students face every day became more apparent than ever. Facing the challenges of the pandemic—layoffs or reduced work hours, limited access to technology, day-care closures and children’s at-home schooling, product shortages, and the new context of health concerns—students took a break from their own education to focus on the immediate needs of their families. Although many students have stopped out during the pandemic, community colleges are filled with programs to aid student success, with more being added to support students’ basic needs while normalizing access and reducing associated stigmas. We know that many students experiencing basic needs insecurities do not access public benefits,2 and given the strong connection between basic needs and learning, many colleges strive to help fill the gap. For example, recognizing the impact hunger can have on learning and success, food banks are becoming commonplace on college campuses and meal-sharing plans and other innovations normalizing hunger support (e.g., SwipeOutHunger.org) are expanding.3

Colleges are also providing additional basic needs support around housing, transportation, and dependent care, the lack of which would necessarily and understandably divert a student’s time and attention from class and studies. In California, community college students have designed and built tiny houses that fit in parking spaces to address housing needs while providing experiential academic work.4 A partnership between Tacoma Community College and the Tacoma Housing Authority offers rental assistance to students who are experiencing housing insecurity.5 We also know that mental health issues can negatively impact student learning and success. The expanding research on students’ mental health suggests that “institutions should work more aggressively toward making common and straightforward the process for students to reach out, seek therapy, and figure out warning signs, all in a timely fashion.”6 One response is virtual mental health services available at any time.7

Addressing students’ basic needs is critical but comes with emotional and labor costs. Colleges have little of either to spare, which is why we are advocating for partnerships and cross-sector collaboration. The League is working with a number of colleges to develop innovative approaches that support students without adding to faculty and staff lift, particularly as colleges connect to and amplify community basic-needs and other resources. Community colleges excel at building community partnerships. Connecting laterally (within communities) and vertically (regionally and nationally) with resources offers sustainable solutions, empowering students with connections to professionals who have the expertise and resources to help them access services. What this looks like operationally will vary. Some institutions are creating basic-needs support positions and hiring counselors or mental health professionals; others are rethinking and redesigning existing positions to support partnerships around basic needs services. However, without the need for additional funding, a good first step is “making common and straightforward the process”8 for accessing the food pantry, transportation, and mental health services, addressing the stigmas head-on. Colleges are moving from listing resources on their website to mobile apps, 24/7 support services, and positioning food pantries in high-traffic areas. Much is being done and we applaud the work at institutions around the country.

In recent years the League has become more involved in initiatives to help community colleges better assist students in accessing basic needs, and this issue of Innovatus features several of those efforts. The colleges participating in this work are exploring partnerships with local, state, and national agencies and organizations to help students with basic needs while they pursue postsecondary education. And, since need does not end with a student’s final course, these initiatives extend to creating greater opportunities for completers to prepare for and secure employment that will support themselves and their families beyond basic needs. You can follow the progress of these efforts on the League’s website at www.league.org/projects.

The pandemic has certainly highlighted social and economic inequities around the globe and in our own backyards. At a time when community college faculty and staff may feel overwhelmed by the enormity of need and overburdened as they strive to help students, partnerships like those discussed here offer hope. These efforts take time and other resources, and although we may agree that meeting students’ basic needs is a first-order priority, the responsibility for making that happen may not fit neatly into the organizational chart. With a partnership approach, the college becomes the connector, referring students to agencies and organizations that can and are designed to help them access the services they need. Community colleges don’t have to do this alone; instead, they are well positioned to strengthen their communities through partnerships, especially as awareness of the plight of so many students grows.

1 Kisker, C. B. (2021). Creating Entrepreneurial Community Colleges: A Design Thinking Approach, p. 240. Harvard Education Press.
2 Klepfer, K., Cornett, A., Fletcher, C., & Webster, J. (2020). Student Financial Wellness Survey: Fall 2019 Semester Results.
3 Goldrick-Rab, S., Clark, K., Baker-Smith, C., & Witherspoon, C. (2021, October). Supporting the Whole Community College Student: The Impact of Nudging for Basic Needs Security.
4 Arredondo, D. (2021 October 26). Tiny Homes: An Innovative Design Solution to Community College Student Housing Insecurity. League for Innovation in the Community College Virtual Learning Summit.
5 Institute for Education Sciences. (2021). Addressing Basic Needs Insecurity Among College Students.
6 Wang, X., Wickersham, K., Zhu, X., Zhen, P., Wagner, B., & Prevost, A. (2021, July 5). Supporting Community College Students’ Mental Health During and Beyond COVID-19. Teachers College Record, Teachers College, Columbia University, para. 18.
7 Hejl, L. (2021, December 3). Basic Needs Support for Community College Students Is Urgent and Actionable. Diverse Issues in Higher Education.
8 Wang, X., Wickersham, K., Zhu, X., Zhen, P., Wagner, B., & Prevost, A. (2021, July 5). Supporting Community College Students’ Mental Health During and Beyond COVID-19. Teachers College Record, Teachers College, Columbia University, para. 18.


Susan Kater is a Project Consultant and Cynthia Wilson is Vice President, Learning, and Chief Impact Officer at the League for Innovation in the Community College, Arizona.


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