CSU Students Are Struggling With Basic Needs, And Universities Are Trying To Help

Mar 2, 2017

The cost of living in California is one of the highest in the nation. And the cost of attending a state college has increased three-fold in the last 20 years. These financial burdens coupled with any kind of personal crisis can leave today’s California State University students struggling more than ever before to meet their basic needs. NSPR’s Kacey Gardner has more on why and how state universities are trying to help.

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When it came time for Martin Morales to fill out his federal college financial aid form —or FAFSA — he didn’t know how to answer many of the questions. He had been estranged from his parents for the past three years.

“There was some domestic violence when I was growing up, so I had to like learn how to deal with that,” Morales said. “But I never showed emotion about it while I was in school. Like, if we went to high school together, you’d never know that I had to deal with that at home.”

One night it got so bad that his mom thought it would be best for him to leave.

“I didn’t say goodbye to any of my friends. It was like I vanished,” he said.

Luckily, Morales was able to partner with school district officials who helped him fill out paperwork designating himself a “Homeless Unaccompanied Youth.” This designation helped him bypass FAFSA questions about his parents’ income and earn enough financial aid to cover tuition.

Cans fill the shelves of one of the Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry’s storage areas. This pantry is part of the Chico State Food Security Project, which provides food and nutritional services to students experiencing food insecurity.
Credit Jessica Bartlett / Student Photographer / CSU, Chico

After being accepted to Chico State, the university was able to secure him housing, and school employees and programs have ensured that he has academic and social support, as well as an on-campus job and a place to stay over breaks.

But, it’s still difficult.

“Imagine celebrating Christmas by yourself,” Morales said. “And Thanksgiving. It was really honestly depressing, in my opinion.”

Morales’s story is just one of many stories of students who need institutional support to get secure housing and steady meals. And Chico State is just one of several schools in the California State University system working on a comprehensive approach to addressing these issues — which are just beginning to be fully understood.  

In 2015, CSU Chancellor Timothy White commissioned a study to determine how many students struggle with basic needs like housing and food. Rashida Crutchfield, assistant professor at Long Beach State, was the principal investigator for the study’s first phase.

“I know that when I was in college, I didn’t have everything, right," Crutchfield said. "I didn’t come from wealth. So there were times that definitely I ate a cup of noodles. That’s not what these students are experiencing.”

Today’s students are experiencing some significant challenges, with the study leading officials to estimate that 1 in 10 CSU students lack steady housing, and about 2 in 10 don’t have enough to eat.  

Chico State's PATH Scholars program supports the educational goals of current and former foster youth students and former "homeless unaccompanied youth."

Chico State was one of the first five schools with programs that addressed housing and food insecurity issues. They have short-term emergency loans, their Hungry Wildcat Food Pantry, and the PATH Scholars Program for former foster or homeless youth.

But much of this work is done on a decentralized, case-by-case basis. So, the university is seeking funding for a more streamlined program that better identifies students who need help and reaches them where they are.

Meanwhile, researchers are working on the second phase of the system-wide study in hopes of gaining a clearer understanding of what students are really experiencing.

I think it’s important to recognize just like in the larger homeless or housing unstable population, there’s no one face of homelessness,” Crutchfield said. “Lots of people from lots of different backgrounds can experience housing instability. We know that some students might be more likely to experience housing instability, but we also are realizing that many different kinds of students experience this.”

For Martin Morales, one of his goals for this year is to move off-campus. He worries about being able to find a co-signer for his lease and affording a security deposit. But he’s determined.

“I know that there’s definitely going to be struggles,” he said, “but I just have to overcome them one step at a time.” 

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