Equity Made Real: Promising Strategies for Addressing College Student Basic Needs

As gaps between the cost of college and available financial aid continue to soar, an increasing number of college students are struggling to cover the costs of basic necessities such as food, housing and transportation. National research has shown conclusively that a significant proportion of college students are basic needs insecure. When students are hungry and homeless, their ability to complete their educational goals diminishes substantially. Local studies have made it plain that these challenges are particularly acute in California and that basic needs insecurity and issues of equity are inextricably intertwined. California’s community colleges, which offer the opportunity for post-secondary education to all who seek it, experience this challenge most severely. Adding to the urgency of this issue is the COVID-19 public health crisis, which has exacerbated an already dire situation, as students attempt to manage mass unemployment, housing insecurity, hunger, increased family obligations and health concerns, while maintaining their studies.

While the State of California, and the community college system in particular, have been ground zero for students challenged by basic needs insecurity, both have also been at the vanguard of innovative solutions to this challenge. The state legislature has invested $69.4 million in Hunger-Free Campus initiatives over the past four years, improved access to CalFresh, leveraged federal dollars through the Fresh Success employment and training program, and invested in housing solutions for students experiencing homelessness. Individual campuses have also shown tremendous innovation, with the development of “one-stop-shop” basic needs centers at the forefront of these efforts. Challenges remain, however, including: (1) how to address basic needs in the context of the shift to distance learning resulting from the pandemic, (2) ensuring that efforts are reaching the most economically vulnerable students, (3) the pace of the cultural shift towards embracing basic needs practices on college campuses, and most crucially, (4) insufficient funding to address the need.

Through a series of interviews with staff from ten community college basic needs centers and other stakeholders, this report outlines a series of promising practices that can be replicated by other institutions to strengthen support as well as policy changes that are likely to help reduce student basic needs insecurity in California.