Providing Students with Holistic Basic Needs Supports: Implications for Middle Leaders in Designing Campuses for Students With Low Income

A Blog Series from the CSU Network 

By Dr. Thad R. Nodine

Nearly half of CSU students are from families with low-income. With the costs of living rising in a robust economy, these students face a dilemma each semester: whether to continue to pay the costs of college or stop out and pursue a full-time job. This is the third blog in a series focusing on actions that CSU faculty and staff can take to encourage their programs and campuses to address the needs of students with low-income and support them in finishing their degree. Previous blogs focused on the challenges that students face in staying in school and the myths and facts about the value of a CSU degree.

Basic Needs Infrastructure on Campuses

The CSU has made substantial progress in expanding its basic needs infrastructure over the past few years, and faculty and staff can serve key roles in helping students learn about and access emergency services to help address their housing, food, and other needs. These services are particularly important given the difficulties students are facing in paying their bills while staying enrolled in the university. 

According to Danielle Munoz, director of basic needs at Cal State Long Beach, the lack of affordable housing continues to be the primary challenge for students from families who are low-income. She said that many students “pay for rent and utilities because they have a landlord and a utility company requiring the money. And so they come in and say, ‘I need food because I paid my rent and there’s nothing left now for me to eat.’ Or they may have had a crisis happen where they lost a job or couldn’t get a job and then they don’t have enough to cover [their expenses]. We wouldn’t hear that before because students could kind of scrape by, but now the rents are so unaffordable it’s unforgiving.” 

Munoz added that many students are working 20 or more hours per week to make ends meet. “Anything less than that and students are really struggling,” she said. “Many are working two or three jobs. They’re doing graveyard shifts. They’re dropping classes just to get that second job because they have bills to pay. A lot of students have credit card debt.” Compared with student loans, credit card debt incurs much higher interest payments and potential fees. 

To address students’ emergency needs, the CSU has been proactive in developing and funding a Basic Needs Initiative as part of its Graduation Initiative 2025. The Basic Needs Initiative seeks to provide a holistic approach to support students’ well-being, including meeting students’ immediate food needs, providing emergency funds and housing, and offering additional supports such as basic needs case management, clothing, wellness workshops, financial literacy workshops, and healthy cooking classes. 

According to Munoz, funding from GI2025 has been crucial in helping many campuses build their basic needs infrastructure to serve more students more effectively. She said that many campuses began their basic needs programs with one case manager serving a few students while also directing the program and providing outreach to faculty, staff, and students. Now most campuses have a basic needs team that typically includes a director, a case manager, and sometimes a staff member focused on outreach. This means that case managers can actually focus on students and their needs. 

All 23 CSU campuses have had food pantries since at least 2019. Munoz said that before the Basic Needs Initiative many of these pantries “were in a closet and now they’re in a dedicated space that feels more like shopping” for students. All campuses now offer students CalFresh application assistance, which provides benefits that can be used to buy food at markets. All campuses also offer on-campus emergency housing and emergency grants or funds. 

Most campuses have created a dedicated Basic Needs Center. The centers are usually in student unions, Munoz said, to make them accessible to students and an integral part of student life. 

In addition, many campuses are seeking to provide basic needs services holistically along with other wellness services. These include: 

  • Financial literacy workshops. Financial aid awards are distributed to students as a lump sum of several thousand dollars at the beginning of each semester to cover all their expenses for the term. Many students with low-income do not have experience with budgeting, but they are expected to make this limited money last for five months. Financial planning workshops and software can provide students with hands-on practice and skills in using a small amount of money across a large range of needs over time. 
  • Case management for student parents. Many CSU students who are parents do not know that they can receive funding from CalWorks to pay for student fees, parking fees, and a monthly stipend. 
  • Case management for student caregivers. When a family member becomes ill, many students quit their job and get behind in class because they are caring for a loved one. Basic needs case managers can provide these students with emergency grants and can advise faculty to be flexible with their caregiving students. 
  • Dental services. Some campuses are providing dental screenings and grants to cover dental needs. 

As part of its online infrastructure, the CSU now provides a clickable map of basic needs resources by campus and a listing of all basic needs managers and directors with contact information as of May 2022. 

What This Means for Middle Leaders 

Basic needs programming differs by campus. Middle leaders—that is, faculty and staff—can serve crucial roles in helping students learn about and access basic needs services on their campus through the following means:

Ask about and attend basic needs trainings on your campus. Most CSU campuses offer Basic Needs Ambassador Trainings to provide faculty and staff with the information and knowledge to engage with students about basic needs issues and services. At Cal State Long Beach, for example, Munoz has partnered with the campus counseling center, the disability office, and others to train faculty and staff on recognizing when students are under stress or trauma, understanding how stress and trauma can affect students in a learning environment, and engaging with students and making referrals. According to Munoz, “We’ve seen a significant increase in faculty and staff participants willing to help students and feeling comfortable in engaging with students about these kinds of issues.” 

Invite your campus basic needs director or manager to department or office meetings. The director can hand out materials for students, can briefly explain services, and can answer questions about services and eligibility, so that faculty and staff feel comfortable engaging with students about these issues. 

Provide a statement and link in your syllabus and a resource slide at the beginning of the semester. Talking in class about basic needs services can help remove the stigma that prevents some students from accessing the services. An easy way for faculty to do this is by including a statement about basic needs services in their syllabus and by providing a resource slide in their PowerPoint or other presentations at the start of each term. Examples of syllabus statements can be found online. Support in crafting them can be provided by the campus basic needs staff. Information on resource slides can include a range of student resources, including basic needs, mental health, disability, and tutoring services. Personalizing these messaging can help students feel welcome. For example, it’s important to emphasize to all students that they belong at this campus and that sometimes life challenges happen to make studying more difficult. When that’s the case, here are some resources that can help. 

According to Munoz, “It’s important that basic needs services are named and provided for students. These services help to keep students in school. If we can keep them in school, then they can finish their degree.”