Opinion: Expanding college access in California means prioritizing its most vulnerable students

ROCKLIN, CA -- FEBRUARY 21, 2020: The Auburn Area Democratic Club does voter registration booths on the Sierra College campus in Rocklin every Wednesday. There is an effort to woo young Democratic voters in conservative Placer County. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Sierra College in Rocklin. Food and housing insecurity among higher education students in California is most severe at the state's community colleges. (Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

There's a running joke that college students eat instant ramen noodles to save money on food, but this joke has become a harsh reality for many students today.

I know how hard it can be to afford college; I'm at Cal State Long Beach thanks in part to Cal Grant, the state's financial aid program for low- and moderate-income students. Throughout my courses, I've heard shocking stories of students struggling to make ends meet.

One classmate my freshman year was a parent working forty hours a week to feed her family while also taking a full load of classes in pursuit of a STEM degree. When I worked on a research team studying food insecurity in the Cal State system, I pored through years of emergency aid applications from students; one unexpected expense like a car accident could unleash a domino effect that pushed a student to the brink of homelessness.

The current student food and housing insecurity crisis began with the 2008 recession when families were hit hard financially and state budget cuts reduced funding for public universities. Surveys at UC reported about 4 in 10 undergraduate students experienced food insecurity — defined by the USDA as limited availability or ability to access nutritious and safe foods. Five percent of students overall experienced housing insecurity — defined by the McKinney Vento Act as lacking a stable or appropriate place to sleep. In the California State University system, another 4 in 10 students faced food insecurity, and 1 in 10 experienced homelessness over the course of a year. The numbers are highest at California's community colleges, where half of the students reported food insecurity over a 30 day period and almost 1 in 5 faced homeless in a year.

The Hope Center conducts the largest national study of basic needs insecurity in higher education; its research demonstrates that students who have food and housing insecurity have lower grades, work the highest number of hours each week and are less healthy than other students, with health problems potentially lingering into the future.

But it's not as if university and state officials haven't been paying attention. This year Gov. Gavin Newsom's proposed higher education budget includes $4 billion to create affordable housing at public colleges and universities and another $30 million through Proposition 98 to create basic needs centers at every community college. And the state Assembly passed a bill this year to simplify and expand the Cal Grant financial aid program; that measure is awaiting action in the Senate.

For many California residents like myself, access to the Cal Grant provides the necessary financial aid for us to attend higher education. But the current Cal Grant program is confoundingly complex for parents and college students, offering multiple different types of aid. Assembly Bill 1456 would pare it down to one grant for students at four-year colleges and another for those at two-year schools, while also eliminating the age limit for grantees and lowering GPA requirements. With the potential to double the amount of community college students who receive financial aid, the bill offers crucial relief and needs to be enacted.

As colleges and universities have attempted to make their campuses more accessible, they have brought more low-income students to institutions in cities where the cost of living is ridiculously high. Underrepresented groups in higher education, specifically Black and Latino students and foster youth, experience basic needs insecurity at disproportionate rates. Suzanna Martinez, an assistant professor at UC San Francisco who studies basic needs across the UC system, explained that higher education institutions are now challenged with servicing the needs of an economically diverse population that is arriving on campuses each year. "We have students who are now in a system that wasn't ever originally meant or built around them," said Martinez in an interview.

For community college students who pay $46 a unit, tuition is less of a barrier than is the total cost of living. A 2016 study revealed that in six out of nine regions in California, community college students were paying more for food, transportation and housing than CSU and UC students.

Martinez pointed out one other hurdle, which she called "the invisible tax of being a nontraditional student." Students who are "nontraditional" — for example, those who are parents, older adults or formerly incarcerated — face significant barriers to accessing the support they need as students, whether it's child care or financial aid or working over 20 hours in addition to their full-time coursework.

Students also struggle to access the mental health support they need. The International Accreditation of Counseling Services recommends a ratio of one counselor to 1,000 to 1,500 students. In the UC system, one mental health counselor serves more than 1,000 students; in the CSUs, the ratio is one counselor per 2,000 students; and in the community colleges, the ratio rises to one to 7,000. Students in crisis may have to wait weeks to months for an appointment.

Administrators in higher education are starting to recognize an expansive definition of basic needs. Genie Kim, the director of student mental health and well-being at the UC Office of the President, encouraged thinking of addressing basic needs as providing academic support at "the intersections of [an] ecosystem and how they impact student success." A 2020 UC Regents report extends the definition of basic needs to include not only housing and food but also healthcare, transportation, hygiene and resources for students with dependents.

Joshua Elizondo, the 2020-21 student representative on the California Community College board of trustees, emphasized it's not enough to just provide services. As a society, we need to engage in dialogue with each other to break down the myths surrounding homelessness and food insecurity in higher education. Elizondo has firsthand knowledge of why shame and stigma surrounding food and housing insecurity can be a barrier to asking for help. "When I was homeless. I, for the most part, didn't talk about it," Elizondo said in an interview. He eventually got housing, he said, because he finally spoke up and talked to people about it.

Why does this all matter? For one, public universities in California are leading a conversation about the affordability of higher education, rethinking and reforming the ways our institutions have been set up to support students. College access is one of the most important factors enabling students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds to climb the economic ladder. With a large number of working-class students enrolled, Cal State L.A. was ranked by the Equality of Opportunity project as one of the country's best institutions for upward mobility. Just this month, California's Sen. Alex Padilla and Rep. Norma Torres proposed the BASIC Act to provide federal assistance to institutions addressing students' basic needs.

Ensuring that students are also matriculating through college is also an important part of ensuring our state's economic future. Research from the Public Policy Institution of California in 2015 predicted that if trends continued, by 2030, the state would have a deficit of 1.1 million college-educated workers.

As lawmakers finalize the state budget, they need to increase funding for the California Student Aid Commission more than the modest 5% currently proposed. CSAC is limited to issuing 41,000 competitive awards each academic year despite the far greater demand for aid; a 2016 study showed that there are 280,000 eligible students each year who do not receive an award. By increasing the number of awards, many low-income students who receive Cal Grants could also qualify for $200 a month for food expenses falling under the special eligibility rules for Cal Fresh.

While comprehensive financial aid reform is still in progress, Lande Ajose, Newsom's senior policy advisor for higher education, envisions a future with a streamlined structure that will assist students throughout their educational journey. "We have students who are on free and reduced [cost] lunch in high school," said Ajose in an interview. "Use that to auto-enroll those students in CalFresh so that they have food when they go to college."

Financial hardship used to be considered a rite of passage for college students, but the issue here isn't having to resort to the occasional cup of ramen. It's the ability to go to and succeed in college without having to skip meals or sleep on a friend's couch because you can't afford food or housing.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.