Higher education: Students’ basic needs not met

Students at the graduation ceremonies of UCLA. (Photo: Joseph Sohm)

California is recognized as an innovative economic leader boasting access to world class higher education, yet the state is quickly being outpaced in the percentage of students who actually complete their degrees.  What drives this chasm between shining opportunity and lackluster outcomes?

One reason is as simple as it is startling: Students’ basic needs are not being met. The overwhelming impact of nontuition expenses on completion is under-appreciated. The high cost of housing, textbooks, transportation and household financial responsibilities have deep implications for student success.

Policymakers must champion research-based solutions that measure student success, expand college access and support equitable degree completion.

Food insecurity is one key factor derailing students from staying on course. Thousands of students cannot keep up because they aren’t getting enough to eat. They cannot focus on their studies, maintain their energy and sustain their physical and mental health. Forty-two percent of students will experience food insecurity at our public universities, and the number is likely much higher at the community colleges.  It’s no wonder that so many students don’t complete their degrees.

The impact of basic needs insecurity is unevenly distributed and is blunting the effects of progress in other areas. For example, high school graduation and college enrollment rates are increasing for Latino Californians, but their degree completion rates are not proportional. Black and Latino students, who collectively comprise nearly half of our college population, are most likely to experience food insecurity.

Angela Davis famously said, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.” We cannot accept that the promise of higher education for all Californians, made nearly 60 years ago, is being denied to so many.

To crack the code to completion, policymakers must champion research-based solutions that measure student success, expand college access and support equitable degree completion by:

–Rethinking how we support students in college. While the generous CalGrant program addresses the costs of tuition and fees, nontuition costs are significant barriers for too many students. The state must look more comprehensively at how we provide food and housing supports and offer aid and support based on students’ actual needs.

–Developing a comprehensive data system to pinpoint and predict where and why students’ pathways unhinge. Currently, data collection is segmented within the UC, CSU, and California Community Colleges, and there is no through-line between K-12, postsecondary and employment data to inform state policy. A student-level longitudinal data system that includes information on basic needs will help produce impactful policies to mitigate and eliminate common barriers to college completion.

–Focusing on adult degree completion for the 4 million Californians aged 25 to 64 who have some college experience but no degree. The state needs innovative approaches based on meeting these students where they live—as parents, caregivers, and workers stranded in low-paying, inflexible jobs.

California faces a looming degree and credential gap of more than two million by 2025 to meet workforce demands and fuel its economy. Thousands of students are being left behind because we can’t address their basic needs in college. Accelerating college completion through reforming our approach to student needs must happen now. Our students and our state deserve nothing less.

Ed’s Note: Lande Ajose is executive director of California Competes: Higher Education for a Strong Economy, and chair of the California Student Aid Commission. Sara Goldrick-Rab is a professor of Higher Education Policy and Sociology at Temple University and founder of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.

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