State Funding for Students' Basic Needs

Several states have begun to fund efforts to help students with their basic needs amid growing concern about homelessness and hunger on campus.

July 1, 2019
 

An increasing number of governors and states are answering the call for more resources to help college students who are struggling with food and housing insecurity.

Recently, lawmakers in California and New Jersey offered new money to help public colleges support students experiencing hunger and homelessness.

California's state budget proposal includes $15 million each to the University of California system and California State University (CSU) system to help students meet their basic needs. The state's 114 community colleges are not included in the proposal, but the Assembly passed a bill that would require each two-year campus to provide a safe parking lot where homeless students can sleep in their cars.

"In the last couple of years, there has been an uptick in the legislative drive to do this, but more often than not we see these issues addressed at the campus level," said Molly Sarubbi, a project manager at the Education Commission of the States.

For example, Phil Murphy, New Jersey's Democratic governor, signed a law in May that includes a $1 million fund to support colleges as they address campus hunger. The legislation also created a student hunger survey and a campus hunger task force to address the problem. The act also introduces a meal credit sharing program to New Jersey colleges called Swipe Out Hunger, which allows students with extra dining hall meal swipes to donate them to their classmates.

"New Jersey leaders have long recognized that today's college students are struggling not only to pay college tuition and fees but also experience other material hardships such as food and housing insecurity," Zakiya Smith Ellis, New Jersey's secretary of higher education, said in an email.

Last year, Andrew Cuomo, the Democratic governor of New York, called for every public college in the State University of New York and the City University of New York systems to have a food pantry by the end of 2018. So far, every campus either has a food pantry or provides access to free food to students through partnerships with food banks and shelters.

"It's fair to say we're looking for ways to improve and have government help students more," said Dan Fuller, deputy secretary for education in Cuomo's office. "We've taken tuition out of the equation for many families, reduced the cost of textbooks and increased food access."

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report released in January analyzed 31 studies on food insecurity among college students. The GAO found that about two million at-risk students who were potentially eligible for food aid through the federal government did not receive the benefits. The report highlighted one national study that found 11 percent of households with a four-year college student experienced food insecurity, as did 17 percent of households with a community college student.

Across California, multiple studies have found that a significant number of college students are facing hunger and homelessness.

Last year, the CSU system conducted its own basic needs study and found that 42 percent of the system's students experienced food insecurity and 11 percent were homeless. The system plans to release a follow-up study later this year.

"That study at the time was groundbreaking," said Denise Bevly, director of student wellness and basic needs initiatives in the CSU chancellor's office. "The food pantries were a good start and serve as a nexus point for our students to get resources, but a lot of students don't go to food pantries and still have need."

More than two-thirds of CSU's 23 campuses offer on-campus emergency housing or vouchers for off-campus housing. And most CSU campuses have food pantries and meal voucher programs. Some CSU food retailers will accept federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP benefits, from students so they can purchase food, Bevly said.

"The dollars that are being proposed right now would help us build out more partnerships with community organizations," she said. They would also help the system provide more emergency housing for students in need, Bevly said.

Although the funding for the CSU system would be a one-time allocation, the budget proposed by Gavin Newsom, the state's Democratic governor, included $15 million in ongoing funding to address hunger and homelessness in the UC system. A California Legislative Analyst Office report released in April included findings from a UC student survey in which 44 percent of undergraduates and 26 percent of graduate students reported experiencing food insecurity. Of the 66,000 students surveyed, 14 percent responded. About 5 percent of undergraduate and graduate students in the system reported being homeless.

The LAO report also found that one-quarter of students from households earning $150,000 or more a year reported experiencing food insecurity, which was "surprising given the significant resources these households have to cover food and other living costs," according to the report.

Claire Doan, a spokeswoman for the UC president's office, said the system has spent more than $4 million since 2015 to address food insecurity on its campuses. Janet Napolitano, UC's president, also has a goal to add 15,000 affordable beds in student housing by 2025.

At California's community colleges, a study released in March by the Institute for College Access and Success and the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice found that 60 percent of two-year students were housing insecure in the last year and 19 percent were homeless. Students who said they were housing insecure may have moved at least three times in a year, were unable to pay their rent or mortgage, or had to leave their homes because they felt unsafe.

"We must help these struggling students with the total costs of college that include housing, food and nontuition expenses," Christina Jimenez, a spokeswoman for the California Community College's chancellor's office, said in an email. "California needs a long-term, meaningful fix that fills the holes of the existing financial aid system that the neediest students continue to fall through."

The legislation that would allow homeless students to sleep in their cars on campus is an acknowledgment that there is a crisis among the state's community college students, she said.

The California Senate is also proposing changes to the state's financial aid system that would help community college students cover the "real costs of college," Jimenez said. A proposed bill would award financial aid by considering the total cost of attendance, which includes textbooks, housing, food and transportation.

While it remains more common for colleges and university systems to address hunger and homelessness on their own, a growing number of state governments appear to be taking the problems more seriously.

"It's really not just a CSU thing but something that is happening to nonstudents and citizens across our state," Bevly said. "Our campuses are just a microcosm of a larger society, so when we talk about housing prices, our students are not exempt from that."

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