Capitol Alert

Pay tuition or feed kids? Students tell California lawmakers about everyday choices

When money was really tight, Sacramento State University student Shamona Thompson Ross found herself chastising her 8-year-old son for putting too much milk in his cereal. Those days tested her decision to see through a degree in American Sign Language.

“I had to seek resources outside, Thompson Ross said. “None of my Maslow needs are being met. I don’t have food in my house. I’m going to end up homeless.”

Thompson is among tens of thousands of California State University students who’ve reported concerns about feeding their families or paying rent while pursuing degrees, a trend that has state lawmakers considering a number of bills that would free up money or cut red tape to keep them in class.

A group of lawmakers met with Thompson Ross and other students at Sacramento State on Monday to gain some first-hand testimony as they develop their proposals.

The legislators included Sacramento Democrats, Assemblyman Kevin McCarty and Sen. Richard Pan, as well as Sens. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, and Steven Glazer, D-Orinda. The lawmakers discussed extending a one-time budgeted $15 million in basic needs initiatives, expanding financial aid and building a rainy day fund to support public university systems during economic downturns.

“Here at Sac State, over two-thirds of the students receive either a Cal Grant, middle-class scholarship, or a CSU grant, and don’t pay tuition,” said McCarty, who chairs the Budget Subcommittee on Education. “But the real costs are non-tuition. Food, housing, transportation, books. That’s why students are struggling. That’s why the average student even with a Cal Grant covering tuition graduates north of $20,000 in debt.”

A California State University recent survey shows 10.9 percent of the system’s 485,000 students face homelessness and 42 percent struggle with food insecurity.

The graduation rate at Sacramento State is below 15 percent. Administrators said students often drop out not because of slipping grades, but because they fell short a few hundred dollars needed for expenses like rent or new car tires.

The university now offers six emergency shelter beds where displaced students can stay for up to 30 days. The beds are always full. There’s also a robust food pantry on campus, and the university created an alert system that notifies students when and where free food is offered on campus.

Director of Student Engagement and Outreach Reuben Greenwald said the pantry offers more of a “grocery store” experience for students, many of whom are recurring visitors. Greenwald noted that 350 students visited the pantry during one week in April, and he estimates the pantry has fed up to 10,000 students and their families since September.

Among the options are college diet staples, like peanut butter and cereal. Female hygiene products are free, as well as a selection of fresh produce.

“I walked in there with a smile looking at all the food,” said McCarty. “I got exactly depressed at the same second. Why are we here? Why do we have to have a pantry to feed the students? That’s so wrong.”

Thompson Ross, 39, said she often cobbles together a dinner of rice and beans served over hamburger meat, or pasta with spaghetti sauce for her family.

She was just weeks into recovering from breast cancer surgery when she started classes last fall to pursue her degree in American Sign Language and Deaf Studies. She was taking 13 units in the fall at Sac State, where she qualifies for the Educational Opportunity Program that’s reserved for low-income students, and was working three jobs to pay her $474 rent, since increased to $1,411.

Thompson Ross said with the increase, she stopped paying the bills and couldn’t always make it to work because filling the gas tank wasn’t in the budget.

Thompson Ross said the pantry and a coalition of supportive professors, mentors and advisers is what she says will help her get across the finish line with her degree next spring.

“It’s so easy to quit school but every time you think about quitting, where am I going to go? she said. “This can’t be it. This is not the end of the road.”

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Hannah Wiley joined The Bee as a legislative reporter in 2019. She produces the morning newsletter for Capitol Alert and previously reported on immigration, education and criminal justice. She’s a Chicago-area native and a graduate of Saint Louis University and Northwestern.