California State University, Stanislaus

Increasing Graduation Rates by Meeting Students’ Basic Needs

Mounting evidence of how food, housing, and financial insecurities are impacting student graduation rates spurred this university into action. It created a program that responds to students’ basic needs, resulting in more students completing their degree journeys.

California State University, Stanislaus (Stan State) developed a student-focused approach to counter the adverse impact that food, housing, and financial insecurities have on students’ social, emotional, and academic needs and well-being. Research has shown that students surviving under these circumstances experience higher drop-out rates, lower grade-point averages, greater academic stress, decreased participation in co-curricular activities, and increased depression and anxiety. If food, housing, and financial insecurities are addressed, students are much more likely to achieve their academic goals because they are not stressed and worried about where their next meal will come from, and they will have a safe place to sleep at night. In response, Stan State used cross-agency coordination and community involvement to advance systemic change that provided resource equity for all enrolled students.

Stan State understands that students’ lived experiences in and out of the classroom inform their tenacity, ambition, and sense of belonging. Through Basic Needs, the university seeks to normalize help-seeking as part of its overall well-being strategy so students can improve their academic performance, increase their engagement, and feel supported, included, and valued as an integral part of the university community. Situated within Student Affairs, the Basic Needs department engages in collaborative efforts with campus staff, faculty, and student leaders to implement a campuswide approach to address student hunger, housing insecurity, and additional barriers to a student’s success and retention at the university. These efforts include programs and initiatives such as the Warrior Food Pantry, CalFresh application assistance, and non-clinical case management. These programs have shrunk the equity gap, thereby helping students persist in pursuing and completing their degree journeys in higher education.

The Methodology

In 2016, Timothy White, chancellor of the California State University (CSU) system, the largest public institution of higher education in the United States, commissioned research to determine the prevalence of food and housing insecurity experiences among the CSU student population. The research identified high rates of food and housing insecurities—41.6% with food insecurity and 10.9% with housing insecurity—among CSU students across the 23 university campuses. These findings prompted White to launch the Basic Needs Initiative in 2018. This effort complements CSU’s Graduation Initiative 2025—which aims to increase graduation rates and eliminate disparities in degree completion—and its pillar of student engagement and well-being.

Before this survey was published, the Stan State campus community was active in supporting students’ basic needs from a grassroots model. Faculty, staff, student leaders, and campus administrators were aware of the basic needs challenges faced by students and came together to address these issues. Since 2016, the Associated Students Inc. and California Faculty Association (CFA) Stanislaus State chapter have been involved in supporting students’ basic needs.

In the 2019–20 academic year, Student Affairs developed and filled the care manager position to serve as the point of contact for all Basic Needs programs on campus, and from this, the Basic Needs department emerged. Once the Basic Needs department was solidified, core services were put in place to create a holistic and effective support system for students. Among the current services are:

  • Warrior Food Pantry: The pantry provides perishable and nonperishable food items and toiletries to enrolled students at the Turlock and Stockton campuses.
  • Food distribution: Basic Needs partners with nonprofit United Samaritans Foundation and CFA Stanislaus State chapter to provide free supplemental boxes of food to students.
  • NOONtrition Kit and live food demonstrations: The demonstrations educate students about healthy eating on a budget and the Basic Needs resources available to them. In the NOONtrition kit, students receive the recipe card and the items to make the meal prepared during the demonstration.
  • Seasonal meal kits: Fall, winter, and spring meal kits are provided as supplemental food support for students during the holidays.
  • CalFresh application assistance: Students who are eligible for the state program can receive assistance from Basic Needs staff in completing the application process.
  • Emergency housing support: The short-term temporary housing program assists enrolled students who have been displaced. Through this program, students have access to Stan State’s campus dining services. Additional food support can be offered to students living off-campus. Additional longer-term housing support is available for students as needed.
  • Campus Cares financial assistance: Campus Cares grants, which do not require repayment, are available for emergency requests, including food, housing, transportation, child care, and medical needs.
  • Emergency meal cards: In partnership with Associated Students Inc., Basic Needs purchases and sends eGift cards directly to enrolled students for instant access to funds to support food security.
  • Case management: A Basic Needs staff member works with each student to provide nonclinical case management and support, information, and referrals to on- and off-campus resources.

Over the years, service offerings have increased to meet the evolving needs of the student population.

The Impact

Stan State measures the success of Basic Needs through the number of students served, mixed method assessments of student success and student satisfaction, and an analysis of retention rates*. In the 2021–22 academic year, 998 students were first-year students (FYS), and 1,954 students were first-time transfers (FTT). Of the FYS, 184 accessed Basic Needs services and 83.7% of those students enrolled in their second year. Of the FTT, 239 accessed Basic Needs services and 90.8% of those students enrolled in their second year. The retention rates of students who accessed Basic Needs services were compared with students who did not use these services. The results are as follows:

  • FYS one-year retention comparison:
    • 83.7% retention rate for students who accessed Basic Needs services.
    • 76.9% retention rate for students who did not access Basic Needs services.
  • FTT one-year retention comparison:
    • 90.8% retention rate for students who accessed Basic Needs services.
    •  85.8% retention rate for students who did not access Basic Needs services.

These figures demonstrate that, despite their struggles with food, housing, or financial insecurity, students who accessed Basic Needs were retained at higher rates than their peers who did not access services.

In addition, the Basic Needs annual evaluation survey was sent to 2,634 students who accessed at least one of the Basic Needs programs from July 2022 through May 2023, to which 345 students responded. According to this mixed method data collection, respondents indicated that the Basic Needs program positively impacted their mental and physical health and contributed to their ability to focus on their educational goals. Respondents also reported that Basic Needs services overall positively affect their mental health by alleviating stress and worry. The results of the students surveyed are as follows:

  • 69% strongly agreed or agreed that accessing Basic Needs programs helped them stay enrolled and helped them work toward graduation.
  • 79% strongly agreed or agreed that accessing Basic Needs programs helped improve their sense of belonging at Stan State.
  • 81% indicated that accessing campus Basic Needs programs improved stress levels.

As the goals of Basic Needs continue to be met, Stan State is demonstrating its commitment to equity and inclusion by uplifting and supporting the region through higher retention and graduation rates.

Key Takeaways

As Basic Needs continues its work toward supporting students in addressing food, housing, and financial insecurities, it is important to note that this work doesn’t happen in a silo. Stan State’s campus and community partnerships have been present from the start and have helped advance the support of the Basic Needs programs and initiatives. Examples of foundational partnerships include the following:

  • CFA Stanislaus State chapter. The chapter played a critical role in fortifying the Basic Needs services on campus. In fall 2016, the chapter developed the Stan State California Faculty Association Campus Cares Fund, which supports the Food Insecurities Fund, and the Student Emergency Fund, providing direct funds to support students’ basic needs. In addition, CFA Stanislaus State Chapter has supported basic needs programming through volunteering, donating, and raising awareness.
  • Master of Social Work program. The program provides curricular experiences for students with the Basic Needs programs (i.e., internships) and allows for innovative and sustainable support to the Basic Needs programs. During the 2022–23 fiscal year, four social work graduate interns assisted with the CalFresh application assistance program, the Campus Cares emergency grant program, and the Basic Needs Ambassadors outreach program, contributing over 2,000 hours to support Basic Needs programming. In addition, Basic Needs has partnered with academic programs to provide action research opportunities and non-clinical case management training for graduate students.
  • United Samaritans Foundation. The organization partnered with the CFA Stanislaus State chapter and the university to supply free supplemental food boxes since 2018. This partnership is a Stanislaus County program and has provided students with over 7,000 boxes of food that offers three meals a day for three days.

Basic Needs also brings the topics of wellness into conversations to provide holistic support among all well-being areas, including health services and recreational activities.

* Retention rate: Percentage of first-time degree-seeking undergraduates entering the fall/spring term who enrolled in the subsequent fall/spring term(s) as of U.S. Census date regardless of part- or full-time status and institution of origin.

“Things like fresh fruit and eggs have been wonderful. In a weird way, small things like that make me feel less bad about having to rely on this resource. I have had to rely on food banks at various times in my life, and fresh items are rarely included. Fresh ingredients make me feel human, and that is so important when things are so desperate that you have to openly admit that you can’t provide the food you need for yourself. There is so much shame in seeking resources, and fresh ingredients feel like empathy.”

Basic Needs participating student’s response in Basic Needs annual evaluation survey for 2022–23

“The Basic Needs program had a major impact on me. They helped me stay in school during a period of homelessness. I was able to keep on striving for my educational goals, and I really appreciated the support and the genuine concern that the Basic Needs program showed me … It made me feel more a part of Stan State, and it let me know that I have a home here, and I have people who are here to help me succeed no matter what circumstances I come from or circumstances I’m facing. Also, throughout the semester, being offered the warrior food pantry and the food boxes also helps because sometimes not having food is a major distraction from completing your schoolwork staying focused on your classes.”

Basic Needs participating student’s response in Basic Needs annual evaluation survey for 2022–23

“Basic Needs was able to help me get food so that I may feel nourished when I was at my lowest point of depression and food insecurity. I was able to also speak with Basic Needs workers about job opportunities around campus and how I can also access different resources such as the student health center and psychological center. I am now graduating, but I [feel] this program did so much for me as a student by allowing me to focus on school without stress about what and if I [would] be able to have my next meal. I am very grateful!”

Basic Needs participating student’s response in Basic Needs annual evaluation survey for 2022–23

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