‘Vital to Student Success’
President’s Lecture Series Addresses Supporting Students’ Basic Needs
By Laura Wagner
The President’s Lecture Series on Justice, Equity, and Inclusion continued Oct. 26 with “Supporting Students Starts With Basic Needs,” a discussion of the critical role of basic needs—adequate food, shelter, clothing, access to physical and mental health resources, child/dependent care, and technology—in students’ successful completion of a college degree.
Guest Leanne Davis (below right), Senior Director of Education & Training Services at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University, joined UHD President Loren J. Blanchard and Interim Vice President of Student Success & Student Life Lynette Cook-Francis (moderator) to explore barriers to students’ receiving basic needs assistance as well as solutions to removing those barriers.
Cook-Francis launched the discussion with a recap of results from a recent student survey, conducted as part of a planning grant from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board (THECB). The survey revealed that in spite of a number of resources available to UHD students, including housing assistance, mental health services, and a food pantry, a significant percentage of students are not accessing help.
“The top four reasons students aren’t using resources available to them on campus are because they’re unaware of the resources; they don’t have time to pursue the resources; they don’t know how to access the resources;, or they don’t know if they’re eligible,” said Cook-Francis. “We as a university are being asked to provide more social services, which we are doing, but we’re not reaching the students the services are intended to help.”
Davis noted that national statistics mirror the results of UHD’s survey. “Higher education was not designed to serve all students,” she said. “Our work at the Hope Center is to transform higher education into a more effective, equitable, and impactful sector. Students are humans first, and their basic needs are essential conditions for learning. We can’t talk about providing college graduates to society to create a more educated workforce unless we’re addressing basic needs first.”
Institutions can succeed in supporting students’ basic needs by partnering with other institutions that have successfully implemented resources and by destigmatizing basic needs assistance, Davis said. Collaborating with local social service agencies or community-based organizations is also essential to fill the gaps in the university’s expertise or services and ensure continuity of care. “Students need to only have to ask once,” said Davis. “And they need to know the assistance is there for them. Our national survey results showed many student respondents believe other students need help more than they do, so even when they know about the resources, they don’t apply.”
Davis mentioned a model used in Seattle in which United Way provides trained staff at a “benefits hub” where students can get help with all types of benefits. Solutions to housing insecurity continues to be a challenge, she noted. No scalable solution has so far been identified.
Blanchard described a pilot system in California that allowed property owners to post available housing units, and university advocates would negotiate on behalf of students who might not otherwise be considered as a tenant. In addition, campuses were opening up empty dorm rooms to students who attended other nearby universities. “This was a way to create a more universal approach where there would be more affordable housing throughout the state as well as more funding for universities to build more housing on campus,” said Blanchard.
In addition to housing scalability, other solutions identified in the effort to support students included the need to break down silos among university groups and building an ecosystem to support all student needs that would include both on-campus and local agency services.
“You have to take a stand and say that basic needs are central to the academic enterprise,” said Davis. “This is something UHD is already doing. Your leadership is encouraging a culture of care and ensuring you’re not just meeting student basic needs through student affairs, but through the classroom as well. We must change the syllabi and change the way we talk to students about their basic needs. Stop making them tell their story over and over before they get the assistance they need.”
Dr. Hope Pamplin, Director, UHD Disability Services, noted the importance of taking the time to set an example, destigmatizing all basic needs, and building a relationship with the students. “If you pay attention, you’ll notice they’ve been wearing the same clothes for two weeks. You need to then take a moment to ask the question: Are you okay? And figure out how to help.”
Davis concurred. “You have to model the care. Treating students as humans first is key. And you can’t talk about basic needs without talking about mental health, because it is perhaps the most important basic need.” She noted that in 2020, her center found that one-third of Texas students were experiencing anxiety or depression. “Lack of attention to mental health is part of how the system has been failing students,” she added.
Davis recommended adding information about local and national mental health resources and hotline numbers to syllabi, continuing to emphasize overall health and wellbeing, including basic needs and services to address them, and providing access to virtual counseling.
Cook-Francis ended the session by announcing the beginning of monthly mental health aid workshops on campus. “Mental health training is a way to identify when someone is in need of help, then to triage and refer,” she noted. “No matter what your role is—faculty, staff, student—we encourage you to take the training and remember to slow down, pay attention to the student, and notice.”
The University will also soon launch a campaign for a Determined Gator Fund, an emergency-assistance fund for basic needs, said Jay Zambrano, Vice President of Advancement and University Relations.
“Not having basic needs met is a deterrent to students’ ability to stay focused and engaged, affecting their academic performance as well as their persistence,” said Blanchard. “Today’s discussion is to ensure we are being relentless in paying attention to our students and addressing those basic needs that are vital to student success.”
The University of Houston-Downtown (UHD) is the second-largest university in Houston and has served the educational needs of the nation’s fourth-largest city since 1974. As one of four distinct public universities in the University of Houston System, UHD is a comprehensive, four-year university led by President Loren J. Blanchard. Annually, UHD educates approximately 14,000 students, boasts more than 66,000 alumni, and offers 45 bachelor’s degrees, 12 master’s degrees, and 19 online programs within four colleges: Marilyn Davies College of Business, College of Humanities and Social Sciences, College of Public Service, and College of Sciences and Technology. UHD has one of the lowest tuition rates in Texas.
U.S. News and World Report ranked UHD among the nation’s Best Online Bachelor’s Programs for Applied Administration and Best Online Master’s Programs in Criminal Justice, as well as a Top Performer in Social Mobility. The Wall Street Journal/College Pulse ranked UHD one of the best colleges in the U.S. for its 2024 rankings, with notable distinctions: No. 1 for diversity (tied) and No. 3 for student experience. The University is designated as a Hispanic-Serving Institution, a Minority-Serving Institution, and a Military Friendly School. For more information on the University of Houston-Downtown, visit uhd.edu.