Let’s Go Basic Needs Fellow: Yvette Hernandez

College: University of California Berkeley

College students today are in a daily battle with the high costs of pursuing higher education, causing many to face food and housing insecurity. From 1985 to 2017, the cost of attending a four-year college or university in the United States rose 497%, more than twice the rate of inflation. During the same time, investments in federal and state financial aid have remained relatively stagnant. This imbalance has resulted in thousands of low-income students struggling to make ends meet at all public university systems in California. 

For instance, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office survey showed that 50% of their students faced food insecurity. The University of California Regents Basic Needs Committee found that 44% of UC undergraduates were food insecure. Within the California State University system, a 2018 Basic Needs study found that 41.6% of students experienced food insecurity. 

Many low-income students eligible for the Pell Grant have relied on free-or-reduced meals during their K-12 education, and suddenly when they enter college they no longer have a similar option. It is cruel to expect that the most vulnerable students will no longer need food assistance simply because they graduated from high school, especially since many guardians relinquish support at this point. 

Legislation has recently passed to support students dealing with food insecurity. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 and AB 396 have expanded eligibility for students to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits up to $246 per month; however, this is not enough, considering food insecurity is not the only issue students are facing. 

In addition to food insecurity, students are struggling to afford safe housing. Around 60% of California Community College Students and 16% of UC students have reported experiencing housing insecurity. At the CSU 10.9% of students were homeless, and there was no measurable data on housing insecure students. These numbers encompass students that live in their cars, couch surf, and students that do not have a reliable and safe space to sleep.

The major contributing factors to housing insecurity are the limited number of beds available for students to live on-campus, and the high cost of living for low-income students. The UC system currently has more than 280,000 students enrolled and only 100,000 beds. Even though some students prefer to live off-campus or with their families, there is still a prevalent need for additional affordable housing across all public institutions, specifically for low-income students.

Policy makers have passed legislation on improving the availability of affordable student housing, such as SB-169, and the Post Secondary Education Trailer Bill that provides 500 million dollars for the construction of affordable student housing over the course of three years. The funds will be distributed as follows: 50% to the California Community Colleges, 30% for the California State University, and 20% for the University of California.

This is an improvement but it does not guarantee that all low-income students will be able to secure affordable housing. Universities and policy makers should heavily consider prioritizing low-income and first-generation students for housing because securing off-campus housing is difficult without the proper support. Many landlords require excessive and unrealistic lease requirements like having an income three times the rent amount or more, a good credit score, and application fees. Some landlords offer cosigner options, but for low-income students their families may also not meet these housing requirements, making them virtually ineligible for off-campus housing. 

The costs of pursuing a higher education is incredibly high for many students to afford today. Which is why there are 1 million fewer students in college as found by the National Public Radio Organization on Education. Many people stereotype college students as lazy for not being able to afford their basic needs but it is simply not the case. The U.S Department of Education found that in community colleges 72% of full-time college students were working either part-time or full-time jobs on top of their full course load. In four-year universities 41% of students were also working. 

Students are already working to support themselves and are still unable to afford their food, housing, and college expenses. This highlights the insufficiency of financial aid. Millions of low-income students receive the Pell Grant, however, it has lost its value because it has not kept up with increasing college costs. Fifty years ago, this same Pell Grant covered three-quarters of the cost of attending a 4-year public college, today it only covers one-third of the cost of college with inflation taken into account. 

Congress should double the Pell Grant to cover the costs for Community College students and 59% of the educational expenses for students at four-year public colleges. Without further action, higher education will continue being unaffordable to low-income students, and food and housing insecurity will continue to rise. 

We have to stop normalizing food and housing insecurity as a necessary evil for obtaining a degree. As students, we are pursuing higher education to better ourselves, our futures and our communities. If we do not act soon we will continue to sacrifice the mental and physical health of low-income students, which makes it much harder to pursue and complete higher education. 

Join the movement to double the Pell Grant. 

For resources and ways of getting involved, visit doublepell.org and letsgotocollegeca.org