Basic Needs Are Foundational For Equity
By Axel Kylander, LeadMN President
Emma Zellmer, Students United State Chair
December 13, 2021
As student leaders of the state’s two largest advocacy groups for public higher education students, we know first-hand the impact food insecurity, housing insecurity and mental health have on tens of thousands of students’ ability to successfully achieve their educational goals.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s ever studied Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs that one can’t achieve self-actualization without first addressing basic needs. This became even more evident during the pandemic, which adversely impacted students with existing basic needs insecurities even more than other groups of students. They already were harmed and had to overcome many challenges to continue their education. The pandemic increased mental health issues and impacted students’ general well-being. This challenge of closing the educational equity gaps was daunting before the pandemic and has become even more so. There is an even greater sense of urgency, and a greater need for creativity and innovation. It will require a greater level of investment, dialogue, and challenging the status quo.
That is why we are so pleased that meeting students’ basic needs is a cornerstone of the Minnesota State Equity 2030 goal. We’re also pleased to personally be a part of the systemwide Basic Needs Ad-Hoc Committee working to identify and discuss successful strategies that have been implemented at both Minnesota State colleges and universities, as well as institutions nationwide, and make recommendations about initiatives that Minnesota State should launch and scale systemwide. At every step of the way, we will bring the student perspective and ensure it is prominent and informing the work. We plan to reach out to a broad base of students, beyond our regular consultative structure, to help the committee educate itself as to the size and scope of the problem our students are facing, as well as how to prioritize the work that is needed to have the greatest impact.
We believe, with the support from Students United, LeadMN, and other organizations like the faculty associations and the legislature, that Minnesota State will need to create a much more holistic and broad-based support structure for students that is more easily navigated than what is currently available. Because if support is hard to access, it may as well not even be there, as the most vulnerable students just don’t have the time, energy, or resources to access them. We also find that many students don’t fully understand that they might be food insecure or housing insecure, as they often think someone else has more difficult circumstances than themselves and therefore resources should be directed elsewhere.
To that end, we’re thankful that the legislature has required colleges and universities to create a website listing all basic needs resources available, implement strategies to communicate with students about SNAP benefits, and provide training and outreach regarding mental health. We’re also thankful that they responded to portions of the Minnesota State request to fund basic needs initiatives by providing funds for addressing mental health concerns among students, as well as general basic needs funding. We hope to see continued support from the legislature during this bonding year and for years to come.
Advocacy from our student associations was key to these legislative results, and it was an honor to work on crafting some of that language.
It will be important for our student associations to continue to be engaged with this work, as we have a very important role – ensure that student voices are the guiding force. Students know best what their needs are, and although we do not know everyone's story, we will continue to work to move students’ stories to the forefront and advocate alongside them. Basic need insecurity and equity gaps are keeping students from accomplishing their educational and personal goals. Students know best what existential threats our peers face, that don’t allow them to fully concentrate on their academic work. Students know best as to what kind of support structures would be helpful.
That is why we’re honored to serve on the systemwide Basic Needs Ad Hoc Committee. Our student perspective will be front and center as the committee thinks through and advises the system as to what kinds of strategies, processes and practices need to be prioritized and implemented at the system level and at the collective level, which will ultimately start making a dent in addressing basic needs insecurity for our students.
Solving the basic needs problem will be a key component to closing the equity gaps and meeting the Minnesota State Equity 2030 goal, which is seen both in accessing higher education, as well as experiencing success with higher education.