Report Finds Statewide Crisis of Basic Needs Insecurity in California Higher Ed

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

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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. Keith O

    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.”

    It’s statements like this that lead people to believe that this whole college “crisis” thing is all bulldookey.


    1. David Greenwald

      Leaving aside the problem with the student seeming to fail to understand the concept of a sack lunch. There are a lot of legitimate problems here – unaffordability of the meal plan, lack of aid by the university for food, student on EBT, yeah you can criticize the student on the one point but the rest is a huge systemic problem. And the survey found most students don’t even know they are eligible for EBT.

        1. David Greenwald

          18 year old kids? Brain smart is not life smart. On their own for the first time, it’s amazing what students do. I know when I had to get services for our nephews, it was a pain in the rear to figure out how to access stuff and what we were entitled to. I consider it a massive failure of the university on several levels: (A) that they are slow to react to the fact that a huge percentage of students are food insecure; (B) that they have not figured out until now just how bad the problem is; (C) that they don’t have support at least to explain how to access services and what to do with the services they get. Look at the recommendations on the list, some of that stuff they could have been doing a long time ago.

        2. Ken A

          As David says most college kids are not “life smart”.  Most kids I went to college with made bad financial decisions all the time.  The people on the right side of the political spectrum want to “teach the kids in college to fish” and explain to them that if they are short of cash in a college town they can work as many hours as they want watching kids or tutoring kids for $10/hr cash (most people I know in town pay college kids $15/hr cash).  Those on the left want to raise taxes so they can “give out more fish” and “Connect students with benefits by incorporating pre-screening for benefits into existing services”.  When I worked at a homeless shelter in college it was not 100% about helping others, since in addition to feeling a lot better about my crappy little apartment and low income when helping guys that lived on the street and had even less money I got to eat as much free food as I wanted.

          P.S. Interesting comparison of the private sector vs. the public sector when looking at rent on and off campus in Merced…

        3. Keith O

          18 year old kids? Brain smart is not life smart.

          Yeah, if this person’s story is true (which I doubt) it’s pretty amazing that a college student doesn’t have the brains to pack a lunch and maybe a dinner too when they know they aren’t going to have access to food for 14 hours.  I don’t believe they are that stupid, but heck, David fell for it.

  2. Michael Bisch

    There are numerous barriers to individuals accessing the social safety net and the communication/information barrier is certainly one of them. That is the case for the general public, why would it be any different for students?


    I have not understood the push-back on Vanguard threads these past weeks to the notion of reducing & removing barriers to educational outcomes. Can someone please explain the point of this push-back? Californians make a tremendous annual investment in higher education. Yet study after study shows barriers impacting educational outcomes. And these barriers impact those the most that have the least capacity to surmount them. What is the rationale for purposefully not addressing these barriers thereby undermining our collective investment in higher ed?

    1. Jeff M

      I think some parents work their asses off and are reasonably good parents in this day and age for developing their college-bound offspring to be reasonably well prepared to handle the responsibility of college life… but generally also there is the tendency for, primarily their mothers, to be over involved in their college-attending child’s life to help the little darling succeed.    And these parents bristle a bit at the reports that we need to tax and spend more to make it easier for the children of not-so-good and not-so-attentive parents to succeed.   It is all behavior that is deliciously Hobbesian and Darwinist to me.

      Be honest now… we all like it when our little darlings win at stuff.  It fluff’s up our own feeling of self-worth.  It is irrational because our children at that age are not really much of a reflection of their parents in what they accomplish… or at least they should not be… or if they are, they are likely being propped up with help to the point that it is not really the student’s win… they can be recognized as puppets of the parental desire to live vicariously through their children’s lives.

      But I am with you 100% on this point that there should be nothing wrong with actions and policies that remove the barriers to greater educational outcomes.  I think we should just feed all K-12 students 2 meals a day… and make the entire experience part of their education for eating healthy… like the French tend to do.  And for college, rent and food for the students should be made affordable by the college.

      Now, I don’t think the community has a responsibility to make rent and food affordable for the students.   We only have responsibility to contribute to developing enough housing and commercial property that supports a vibrant market for housing and food service.

      And the college is failing and the community is failing on all of these things.

    2. Alan Miller

      > the communication/information barrier is certainly one of them.

      If only we had small, space age, hand-held devices that had access to virtually all the information known to mankind.  Maybe someday.

  3. Ron

    In reference to the cost of attendance chart (in the article above), I’m assuming that “with family” means living with one’s family (e.g., parents).  Wondering why that option/scenario is only shown for community colleges, and not CSU or UC.  Also wondering what percentage of students do live with family, for each system/institution.

    The chart also shows tuition of approximately $1,100 at community colleges, but still shows total attendance costs of almost $13,000 per year “with family”.  (The $12,000 discrepancy is not explained.)

    In general, it would be interesting to know how many students “voluntarily” put themselves in this situation (e.g., already have access to a nearby educational institution, family that is willing to let them live at home, etc.). Probably can’t be captured easily, in a survey.

      1. Ron

        Thanks.  Looks like they also included approximately $4,800 annual cost for food.  Parents don’t normally charge their kids for food eaten at home.

        Also, approximately $3,160 for personal/miscellaneous expenses.

        In any case, I’m not sure why either of these expenses are considered a cost of attending college. Nor does it explain the other issue, in which comparative costs for living at home were not shown for CSU or UC students.


        1. David Greenwald

          You still have to eat and it costs money.  You’re missing a key point here, the key point is it’s not a cost of “attending college” its the cost of paying the bills while attending college.  After all, you could argue that you have to pay rent someone whether you go to college or not.  But that’s still a cost that you have to find a way to pay for while attending college.

        2. Ron

          It might be more interesting if the survey actually focused on the direct costs of attending college, vs. general living expenses.

          As a side note, I know parents who allowed their children to live at home (rent-free, with essentially no expense for food), on the condition that they attend college. Some also allow this after their children begin their careers, until they’re ready to leave.

          1. David Greenwald

            I disagree on the first point, the key variable is how much do you need to live if you attend school – that includes living expenses as well as college expenses.

            On your second point, whether the parents pay for the kids to eat or the kids pay themselves, it’s still a cost. That’s why that figure is what it is, they take out the cost of rent and keep the rest.

        3. Ron

          There are a lot of articles like this, on the Internet:

          “More young adults are living with their parents than at any time since 1940, according to new data.”

          “Women are five times more likely to go to college today than they were in 1940, but college is also much more expensive than it was then—and many college students may choose to stay with their parents to offset rising college costs. In 2014, 45% of women college students lived with their parents, according to Pew, compared to 33% of non-students.”

          It would be interesting to find out the statistics in California, vs. this presumably national data.

        4. Ron

          David: “I disagree on the first point, the key variable is how much do you need to live if you attend school – that includes living expenses as well as college expenses.”

          Living expenses exist, whether or not one attends college.  And, for many students, those expenses will be significantly less if they live at home and attend a local college (at least for the first couple of years, before transferring – assuming that they choose a major which can’t be accommodated for the entire 4 years, near their family’s home).

          David: “On your second point, whether the parents pay for the kids to eat or the kids pay themselves, it’s still a cost. That’s why that figure is what it is, they take out the cost of rent and keep the rest.”

          It’s a living expense, not a college expense.  And, it’s already been noted that this calculation doesn’t seem well-supported for those living at home.



        5. Ron

          Depends upon what you’re trying to prove.

          Regardless, it’s useless data, if many students have other options (e.g., living at home while attending college). Not to mention direct assistance from parents, for those who choose to “strike out on their own” to experience independent living, before starting careers.

          For sure, no one should expect others to pay for voluntary choices, when other reasonable options are available to obtain a degree for a substantial number of students.

          There needs to be additional “culture shift”, regarding expectations of leaving the nest before one is ready to do so.  It’s already occurring, but some seem to be in denial.  (Not necessarily a reference to you.)

        6. David Greenwald

          That’s silly.  It’s not useless data, it paints a picture.  Any cost of living is a mere estimate because you can always spend way more or cut corners to save money.

        7. David Greenwald

          The breakdown in the link I provided you gives you the other answer – just add up the tuitition costs and books and that gives you a good idea of what the college-only costs are.  Not sure why you are so bent on calculating that, but it’s easy to do.

        8. Ron

          David:  ” . . . just add up the tuitition costs and books and that gives you a good idea of what the college-only costs are.  Not sure why you are so bent on calculating that, but it’s easy to do.”

          The reason is because that’s the actual cost of attending college, for a substantial number of students.  (To be accurate, it should also include the direct cost of transportation to/from campus.) I also strongly suspect that living at home is an option for many more students (who simply choose not to do so). However, I haven’t seen any surveys, regarding that.

          (Of course, one can argue that there’s also an “opportunity cost” of attending college, but that’s almost another subject.)

        9. Howard P

          Ron… you wrote:

          For sure, no one should expect others to pay for voluntary choices,

          Like abortion, having kids without the means to support them (including thru college), ‘slacking’ as to job seeking, bailing out private pensions, etc., etc.


        10. David Greenwald

          And Ron, I think because of that opportunity cost, you have to look at the entire cost to live.  Because while it is true you can work and go to school, most students work far less and earn less than non-students.  Regardless the student is calculating two different things – the cost of college – tuition and the cost of living while in college .

        11. Ron

          O.K.  But again, there’s some misrepresentation in these surveys, in that many students can live at home and save substantial sums of money.  (And some, no doubt, simply choose not to.)

          There is a culture shift occurring regarding living at home for longer periods (during, and immediately after college), which is being “encouraged” by rising tuition and cost of living. I’ve witnessed this, personally. (It may also be more common in relatively expensive areas.)


        12. Ron

          Howard:  The article I reference above shows “how many” women currently do so at the national level, at least.  (45%, as of 2014.) Not sure what the statistics are, in California.

          I don’t know how many more students could do so (e.g., at least for the first couple of years of their education – assuming that their major cannot be accommodated near their family’s home for the entire 4 years, for example).  Such information is not part of the surveys I’ve seen (including the survey referenced by David in the article, above).


        13. Ron

          David:  “Definitely a trend, but not sure what that has to do with the cost of college.”

          The fact that more students are choosing to stay at home (thereby eliminating the cost of rent while attending college) has no impact on the cost?  Really?

          Do you see how your comment makes no sense whatsoever? What on earth are you possibly thinking, here?


          1. David Greenwald

            Ken’s article did not mention college students (it excluded them in fact). That is what I was responding to. Did you even read the article he posted?

  4. Ken A

    It is it important to remember that college in CA is free for all poor kids and community college is now free the first year for every full time student in CA.  If you are “food insecure” it might be a better idea to go to a community college near your home for a couple years than to go to UCD and complain that the sushi place at the CoHo won’t take your EBT card.

    P.S. The $530/month food cost for a kids living with parents is over $100 more than living on campus and seems pretty high (I’m guessing that David is like me and spends WAY less than $2K/month to feed the family)…

    1. David Greenwald

      Part of what this shows, is even if you do attend community college, unless you are literally living at home, you’re not saving that much money.  You save some no doubt.  But you also don’t get as much in teh way of AID.

      The cost of food per month is probably too high, based on my survey of students paying for food.  Also when you have a family, its an incremental cost increase to feed additional mouths.  The fifth person is way cheaper than the first person.

      1. Ken A

        For a poor kid it is easy to spend four years at a community college while working full time and going to school part time (including one class each summer) then after saving up the money to go away to college they will have enough to attend a school like UCD for upper division without needed an EBT card to pay for food (they will get the same degree as the poor guy that lived in his car and got food from the food bank after moving to Davis to attend UCD as a freshman).

        P.S. Community Colleges in CA even have a program that guarantees you a spot at UCD:

      2. Ron

        David:  “The fifth person is way cheaper than the first person.”

        Especially if you’re referring to the order of reaching the goodies, before they’re gone.

      3. Howard P

        Don’t worry, Ron, as I suspect you’ve already “gotten your goodies”, and are fully comfortable closing any doors that led you to get there, for others… fully understandable… might cost you some $ that you so richly have deserved…

        1. Ron

          Howard:  Wow!  Where’s that coming from?  (You might want to look inside yourself, for the answer.)

          I haven’t even reported it, since it seems to be originating internally. And, helps explain your misguided views and hostility regarding the reasons that I support slow-growth goals, in general. (Not just within Davis, as I’ve mentioned umpteenth times.)

          40 million folks in California, now. Including those now building in fire-prone and flood areas.

        2. Howard P

          Californians have built in fire-prone, flood prone, and drought prone areas for like 150 years… but we should set a firm cap@ 40 million or less, right?


        3. Ron

          Building in fire zones is getting a little off-topic, but here’s an article regarding that (from today):

          In reality, we’ll all help pay for such disasters, one way or another.  (One example is PG&E, which I understand is attempting to pass on liability costs to all ratepayers, from the Sonoma county fires, last year.)  Other examples include direct government bailouts (sometimes “literally”, from floods), increased insurance costs for everyone, etc.

          Regarding “goodies”, one might consider the impacts on our existing roadways, water availability, habitat, etc.  Are those goodies limitless?

          I didn’t mention a firm limit, but do you have any limits in mind whatsoever?  50 million, 60 million . . .?  And, do you think our policies should actively support ever-increasing population and development?

        4. Ron

          My computer crashed, before I completed editing above.

          Note that the increase in fires we’re experiencing are also likely the result of climate change.  (A direct result of increasing population combined with the impact of modern technologies, originating from areas far beyond the actual burn zones. Same thing is likely true regarding an increase in flooding/severe storms.)

          Also, if we cut our per-capita greenhouse gas production in half (while simultaneously doubling the population) over a given period of time, are we making any “progress” on that issue (not to mention the other impacts)?

          The “elephant in the room” is our failure to acknowledge that population can’t keep growing indefinitely, on a finite planet.  Also, our impact is far larger than our footprint.

          It’s a disgrace and a disaster that this isn’t being truthfully acknowledged, even by many environmental groups. On a more personal level, you haven’t explained your opposition to this logic, and have instead chosen to repeatedly engage in personal attacks against some, for pointing it out. Go figure.

    1. Ken A

      If we don’t have a new “clear and unrestrictive as possible” program to help kids cover rent shortfalls, or car repairs how else will kids who run up a bigger bar tab than they wanted to the night before “cover rent shortfalls, or pay for car repairs”?

      1. Alan Miller

        Yes, the cost of drugs and alcohol needs to be included in these surveys.  And I’m not kidding when I say that.  It was a SIGNIFICANT part of the cost of college for a large percentage of students I knew (possibly knew quite well in fact), and it is a large budget item for many.  I doubt this has changed much from what I observed.  Thankfully, drinking and driving seems less acceptable and there are more options.  But from a budgetary point of view, this is a big budget item for many.  How do you factor that into all these proposed forms of financial aid?

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