Community colleges grapple with students’ basic needs

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Facing the pandemic and financial woes, California’s community colleges are struggling to provide programs to meet some of their students’ most basic needs, such as food and shelter.

The efforts come as many community college students report a loss of income, increased homelessness and a worsening financial situation

Lawmakers are considering legislation to deal with the issue.

About one in five — 19 percent –of the respondents indicated that they were homeless. About 50 percent said they were food insecure.

In the past six months, Assemblymember Marc Berman (D-Menlo Park) has introduced two bills, AB2388 and AB2884, that would improve funding and support for basic needs programs throughout the community colleges system, which has 105 colleges, 2.1 million students and is the largest higher-education system in the nation. Both bills were easily approved in the Assembly earlier this month and await action in the Senate.

Conversations about students’ basic needs insecurity have gained traction over the past few years.

In March 2019, the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice released results from the first-ever survey of basic needs insecurity among California community college students. The survey found that about one in five — 19 percent –of the respondents indicated that they were homeless. About 50 percent said they were food insecure.

Student advocates, faculty associations and community college officials believe that addressing basic needs insecurity is key to improving academic success. A report from Inside Higher Ed stated that a number of studies have found that food and housing insecurity undermines academic success.

“The idea of basic needs is that we need to meet students’ certain physical needs before we can expect them to perform within a classroom setting,” Amine El Moznine, a DeAnza Community College student and the vice president of legislative affairs at the Student Senate for California Community Colleges.

The legislation also would require that all community colleges to create and publish a consolidated list of all the basic needs services it provides by February 2021.

Berman has been working on basic needs insecurity with student advocates since January 2019, when he introduced a bill would have allowed homeless community college students to sleep in their cars at designated safe lots on community college campuses. The measure, AB 302, died in the Legislature.

Berman’s AB2388 seeks to increase the number of  basic needs centers at the colleges. According to the Chancellor’s Office, 114 community college campuses reported having food pantries or regular food distribution services on campus. Fifty-four campuses have developed or are developing basic needs centers. Berman’s bill urges all community college campuses to establish  a basic needs center, hire a basic needs coordinator and provide outreach to students about the program.

The bill’s original language, written before the pandemic hit, required the establishment of the centers; the newer version’s language makes it a recommendation, not a requirement.

“We were kind of forced based on the budgetary reality to change that from a requirement to essentially a suggestion,” Berman said.

His legislation also would require all community colleges to create and publish a consolidated list of all the basic needs services they provide by February 2021. The schools would be required to list the services provided, the location where they are provided and contact information for each service in an easily accessible tab on their website.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about the future state of funding for a lot of these programs.” — Amine El Moznine.

Funding for the basic needs program will be affected by the state budget  for the new fiscal year beginning July 1. The spending plan was approved earlier, but it will be amended to accommodate changes in the state’s fiscal condition. The amount of money that ultimately will be available for  the students’ basic needs remains uncertain.

Over the past three years, the state has given the community college system about $16.4 million for students’ basic needs —  $2.5 million in 2017-18, $10 million in 2018-19 and $3.9 million in 2019-20

The Legislature has proposed that $75 million be given to California Community Colleges to address learning loss, COVID-19 response and basic needs. Moznine says the Student Senate is grateful for the proposed funding, but the final numbers may change.

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about the future state of funding for a lot of these programs, so we’re also now looking at having to battle cuts being made across the board to a lot of the services that students depend on,” Moznine said.

The pandemic has aggravated the problem of coping with needs security.

Berman’s  AB 2884 would fund basic needs programs without putting further strain on city or state budgets. AB2884 would allow the community colleges to use restricted lottery funds to pay for basic needs programs.

California’s community colleges receive their funding through voter-approved Proposition 98 of 1988, which generally guarantees K-14 public schools a certain level of funding year-to-year. The state lottery also provides some funding for schools’ instructional materials, and many community colleges have a surplus of those funds. Berman’s AB2884 would allow community colleges to use those funds to provide housing and food assistance to community college students.

Berman says he has received bipartisan support for both bills.

“Something that even resonates with my Republican colleagues is that we’re trying to spend money more effectively,” Berman said. “We’re trying to be more strategic about it.”

The pandemic has aggravated the problem of coping with needs security.

“I do think the pandemic has elevated the need and the awareness of the need to support these students and elevated the awareness of the importance of community colleges” Berman said.