June 6, 2022

June 6 is National Higher Education Day, a day that celebrates the power of higher education as a critical step to prosperity, but also highlights the challenges facing students today.

Food insecurity is a well-documented barrier to college completion. To better understand hunger on college campuses, and policy solutions to support students so that they can successfully complete their degree, I interviewed Ruben E. Canedo (he/they).

Ruben is the co-chair of the University of California Systemwide Basic Needs Committee. This committee helps inform a campus-wide initiative that identifies root causes of basic needs insecurity and provides systemwide safety nets so that students are able to succeed and thrive.

Ruben recently testified in fall 2021 in the Congressional hearing on college hunger held by House Rules Chairman Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.).

Who are today’s students and what are their challenges in meeting their basic needs?

I hear a lot of misconceptions and misinformation that reflect outdated and frankly harmful assumptions about college students.

We often hear things like the so-called “starving college student” who’s really supported by their parents. Others will make statements that allude to hunger, and not having basic needs met as a rite of passage for college students.

The reality is that the majority of college students today are no longer predominantly white, heterosexual, male-identified, upper- or middle-class youth coming out of high school. College students are increasingly:

  • first-generation;
  • from poor to working class backgrounds that make them work multiple jobs;
  • come from or grew up in communities with high counts of immigrants;
  •  LGBTQIA+;  and/or
  • have dependents they are responsible for throughout their college experience.

Students are squeezed by rising costs of living and college tuition, and a financial aid system that has not kept up. In 1980, a Pell grant covered more than 75 percent of a student’s public university costs, today it covers only about 28 percent.

Students across the country are struggling to afford food, and other basic needs:

  • The Hope Center found that three out of five students nationally struggle with food insecurity.
  • The University of California found disparities where 62 percent of American Indian and 57 percent of African American students who were first generation or receiving Pell grants reported very low food security, compared to 38 percent of all students.

Over the last 10 years, we’ve learned that there are many local, state, and national solutions that can be operationalized in the short and long term.

Everyone must have their basic needs met. College students must be included and have a lot to contribute in this emergent community journey ahead.

Have there been any policy actions to help mitigate the  impacts of  COVID-19 on college students?

At the campus level, basic needs centers and services were established as “essential services” that allowed for staff and community to care and support each other through the pandemic.

Federally, Congress expanded access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, called CalFresh in California) that has addressed some access barriers. In California, we’ve had phenomenal partnership between our state and counties, financial aid, higher ed., and students harmonizing to get students enrolled, and it’s been a major success. The GetCalFresh student portal and emergent BenefitsCal student journey make it easy for students to apply.

Congress also provided much-needed direct financial assistance to students. The Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF) funded by the American Rescue Plan has provided more than $12 billion in grants to low-income students, a lifeline for students who lost their jobs and faced all kinds of financial hardships from the pandemic.

Many successful policies enacted as part of the COVID response have been temporary—Is that the case for college students, and if so, what does that mean?

Unfortunately, some policies have already sunset. Others will soon expire and threaten benefit cliffs. When the Public Health Emergency ends, SNAP Emergency Allotments could end as students are starting their academic year in the fall semester/quarter and lose benefits just when they need them.

The resources from HEERF have been spent. We are working closely with our directors of financial aid to share personalized communications to HEERF recipients to confirm that they will no longer have HEERF resources in their package next year. We are including helpful on and off campus resources to help support them in meeting their basic needs.

As the Public Health Emergency ends and HEERF resources are sunset, the only resource that students will have is the federal Pell grant. Unfortunately, despite a major national campaign, the Pell grant has not been doubled. We also must improve the Pell grant for graduate or professional school students.

Looking ahead, what can the federal government do to support college students’ basic needs?

College students need to be a priority population across federal programs. College students have intersectional identities and can be part of one or several other demographic groups from single parents to people with disabilities.

Congress should pass the EATS Act of 2021 (H.R. 1919) to expand eligibility for SNAP to students attending institutions of higher education. Students also need to have a seat at the table at the upcoming White House Conference on Food, Nutrition, and Health.

How can students get involved?

Students should know and feel that they are not alone, and to reach out for help and support students can: