The Speaker’s Office of Research and Floor Analysis has recently put out an overview of basic needs insecurity issues in California’s public higher education system.
“Food and housing insecurity is a growing challenge for students, families, faculty and staff, institutional leadership, and the Legislature,” the report concludes. “Students suffering from basic needs insecurity face academic, financial, and health challenges their food and housing secure counterparts may not face. This has a direct impact on the Legislature’s goals for increasing student success and degree attainment, reducing the total cost of attendance, and closing the degree gap.”
They quote a student who was surveyed: “In fall 2013, I was living out of my car and couch surfing.… I appealed to financial aid to override my dependency status but was denied. I also tried to apply as a homeless/low-income student but was denied because I was splitting a room in an apartment with four other people.”
Another student is quoted: “I couldn’t afford a meal plan plus I live off campus, so I enrolled in EBT but nowhere on campus accepts EBT so I can’t eat even on days when I am on campus from 9am to 11pm studying and working.”
Another student: “I have a budget of $17 per week which includes everything after rent.”
Another student: “100 percent of my financial aid goes toward rent, and I have around $25 per month to spend on food.”
Another student: “My friends have been forced to sleep in the forests or in their cars… They get harassed by [police] but they have nowhere else to go.”
Another student: “I eat a bowl of rice and tell myself I’m okay. Starving myself for a few days is better than living on the streets.”
Another student: “I skip meals to be able to pay rent, get my clothes from free piles, I don’t go out…My freshmen year I was looking at tents…”
The report looks at costs for all three segments: the California Community Colleges (CCC), the California State University (CSU), and the University of California (UC).
The report notes: “While tuition and fees for California residents are lowest at the CCCs, after factoring in the high cost of housing, other living expenses, and the lower amount available for student aid, the total cost of attendance can mirror costs for the UC or CSU.”
Some of the key findings include for the CCC, “Housing accounts for 43% of the cost of being a CCC student, and 30% of students are solely responsible for their housing costs.” The recent study found that about 40 percent of Community College students “had very low food security” and “a quarter of students experienced homelessness.”
For the CSU, “Since 2006-07, financial aid packages for students living off-campus have been calculated based on annual inflation, but median rents have risen much faster than the rate of inflation. The Basic Needs Initiative found that 42% of students were food insecure, and 11% of students were homeless in the past year.”
In addition, “the survey found only 10% of students with very low food security and 7.5% of students with low food security used CalFresh systemwide. Seven in 10 students were unaware of emergency housing services or thought they were not offered on campus.”
Finally, for UC, “Rent is the largest expense for UC students living off campus, though UC has the most amount of aid available for living costs. In 2016, 5% of undergraduates were homeless while attending UC, and nearly half of undergraduates were food insecure.”
Of students experiencing food insecurity, 57 percent were not food insecure as children.
In addition, “a survey of graduate students in May 2017 found that one in three was food insecure and 5% experienced homelessness.”
Looking specifically at the UCs, “The majority of UC undergraduates, 54%, live off campus, versus 35% in on-campus housing and 11% with parents or relatives, but these rates vary widely among schools.”
They found rent is the largest expense for students living off campus, with significant differences in the monthly off-campus rent by institution.
The chart above is similar to numbers presented by the Vanguard earlier this year.
Interestingly enough, at least in 2016, “rent costs for off-campus students actually decreased by 3% when compared to 2013 average systemwide rent in constant dollars. Rent costs declined between 2013 and 2016 at every campus except UC Berkeley, where they increased by 10%.”
They ask how rent could have remained flat for UC students, given the overall rental market picture.
They find: “Students appear to be sharing housing at higher rates and with more housemates and/or roommates than in previous years in order to defray the cost of rent, particularly in expensive areas of the state.”
The survey looked at homelessness and food insecurity.
In 2016, five percent of systemwide undergraduates were homeless while attending UC, or 10,500 students when scaled to total undergraduate enrollment in fall 2016.
They note that numbers varied from a high of seven percent at UC Santa Barbara and UC Santa Cruz “to a low of 3% at UC Davis.” (Please note that the data that computed the 3 percent is what we used earlier this year, while the updated figures are going to be based on the new Affordable Student Housing Survey as reported).
Systemwide, “homelessness was reported at higher rates among international students (8%) and African American, Hispanic/Latino, and American Indian students (6%), but was highest among former foster youth, similar to CSU and CCC data. Thirteen percent of former foster youth reported that they had experienced homelessness. Homelessness was also more common among LGBTQ students.”
Looking at food, across all campuses, “42% of students, and nearly half (48%) of all undergraduate students, were food insecure. Of this cohort, 23% had low food security and 19% had very low food security.”
Two data points from the study stand out, the report notes: “First, of students experiencing food insecurity, 57% reported that they were new to being food insecure, i.e. they were not food insecure as children. Second, though 17% of respondents had received CalFresh assistance in the past, a dismal 2% of students reported having CalFresh benefits currently.”
They found that food insecure students reported a lower average GPA, had more difficulty in studying, and 10 percent had to suspend studies due to financial hardship. “In addition, one in four food insecure students had to choose between paying for food or academic/housing expenses, and 15% had to choose between paying for food or medicine.”
Here are some of policy recommendations:
- Connect students with benefits by incorporating pre-screening for benefits into existing services, such as academic counseling or orientation, in order to capture the most students eligible. Provide benefits access in a single hub and co-locate a Single Point of Contact there with CalFresh outreach and application assistance and other services.
- Provide emergency aid or micro-grants to students with financial emergencies, for security deposit assistance, rent shortfalls, or car repairs, and ensure eligibility for aid is as clear and unrestrictive as possible, or operate multiple programs to address different issues. Make sure aid is disbursed quickly, given that financial aid is often not the quickest or most efficient way of disbursing funds.
- Create a committee or team of individuals who are specifically responsible for basic needs security work on campus, and ensure there is diverse representation from students, staff, faculty, and administrative leaders. See the UC Global Food Initiative systemwide and institutional committees as an example.
- Establish and publicize a trauma-informed Single Point of Contact—or a case manager, like at Sacramento State—for students with basic needs insecurity at every single institution in the state. Task them with helping students apply for financial aid, referring students to campus and community services, building relationships with local benefits programs and service providers (including the local Continuum of Care), and leading campus outreach efforts.
- Support students’ financial capabilities, and ensure they have access to financial literacy coaching, credit building opportunities, and affordable financial products. Avoid partnering with bad actors that harm students’ financial solvency, like predatory banks or loan services. Skyline College’s partnership with SparkPoint is a good model.
- Establish campus food pantries, campus community gardens, food recovery or meal swipe donation programs, and CalFresh outreach and assistance for food insecure students. Accept EBT in at least one on-campus market or store, so that students who are eligible for CalFresh do not have to travel far to use their benefits. Humboldt State University’s Oh SNAP! Program is a good model on how to meet USDA requirements for EBT on campus.
- Provide students with assistance on housing issues by operating legal clinics or connecting students with outside legal help for evictions or landlord issues. Use some on-campus housing spaces for short-term emergency housing for students who fall into homelessness or are at imminent risk of becoming homeless. If schools do not have on-campus housing, partner with local hotels and motels to offer homeless students subsidized vouchers for temporary stays. CSU Long Beach’s Student Emergency Intervention Program is a good model.
- When developing on-campus housing, or housing near campus, consider the needs of low- and moderate-income students and build mixed-income or exclusively affordable projects.
- Modify the timing of aid delivery, particularly institutional aid, to help students with housing costs. Offer advances on financial aid to students who need cash earlier.
- Push housing-related cost deadlines to after the disbursement of financial aid. If possible, reduce or eliminate on-campus housing security deposits or application fees for students.
- Coordinate with local Continuums of Care and public housing authorities to ensure students experiencing homelessness are accessing the local coordinated entry system, and build relationships with local youth shelters and service providers in particular.
—David M. Greenwald reporting