A growing awareness of social justice, basic needs and data


Community college provosts are increasingly aware of the benefits of meeting students’ basic needs — such as food and housing security — and see meeting these needs as part of their institution’s responsibility, according to a new report by Ithaka S+R.

Three-quarters of 128 survey responders said they recognize that higher education institutions should play a role in helping students meet their basic needs through social services. However, collecting data on such needs isn’t so easy. Community colleges already collect data on more traditional measures, such as enrollment and completion rates, but fewer are able to gather the information on more holistic needs, the report says.

Larger colleges tend to collect more data on student basic needs compared to small or medium-sized colleges, perhaps because smaller institutions have less infrastructure, funding and resources than larger colleges, it says. Greater shares of large colleges specifically collect data on student disability, short-term or emergency financial aid, as well as food and housing security needs compared to small and medium-sized colleges. Greater shares of smaller colleges collect data on student technology access and wi-fi connectivity needs than medium or large colleges.

Social justice awareness

The reports says that overall a larger share of provosts see addressing social justice imperatives as highly important. In fact, the share of provosts who indicated that social justice imperatives are extremely important more than doubled in the course of roughly a year; in 2019, less than a quarter rated it as extremely important compared to nearly six in 10 in 2020.

“This significant increase may be in response to the ways in which the pandemic has revealed already existing and worsening inequities within higher education,” according to the report. “Renewed demands for racial justice led by the Black Lives Matter movement and heightened calls to dismantle systemic racism within higher education most likely also played a role in this increased prioritization of social justice imperatives.”

Breaking silos

Data would help colleges address these issues. But again getting them isn’t easy. Traditional metrics of student success are typically collected across both academic and student affairs and housed by institutional research and effectiveness departments. Meanwhile, the majority of holistic metrics are kept within student affairs departments, the report says.

“As many colleges are attempting to meet holistic needs, especially considering the amplification of these needs throughout the pandemic, it may be beneficial to centralize holistic data alongside more traditional metrics,” it says. “Disaggregating these data to identify particular subgroups facing increased challenges and sharing these data openly with faculty and staff can help lead to streamlined holistic measurement while managing limited resources, capacity, and infrastructure. These steps are important for local change to take place.”

The report and survey are part of the broader Holistic Measures of Student Success initiative that Ithaka S+R launched to determine challenges and opportunities associated with new data collection practices. Later this year, Ithaka S+R will provide recommendations for community colleges and stakeholders on how to more effectively gather and prioritize student basic needs data.

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