A Central Valley student received a Cal Grant for school but said the real struggle is just affording to live day to day. An Inland Empire student who returned to college for a better life said they are unwilling to buy books over food for their family, so the debt keeps growing. A Long Beach student has a minimum wage job that doesn’t cover costs, so meals are skipped and replaced with Minute Maid and chips.

These student experiences are among the 15,000 represented in the recent Student Expenses and Resources Survey (SEARS) conducted by the California Student Aid Commission in partnership with research firm Mathematica and funder College Futures Foundation. Students across five higher education segments were surveyed, arming the commission with fresh data by region, race, ethnicity and age to better inform the state’s financial aid body in serving the growing and changing needs of the student population.

The SEARS findings provide a reality check for future policy discussions and the development of next year’s state student aid budget. They pair troubling statistics with heart-wrenching life experiences of today’s college students.

It isn’t a pretty picture. A combined 64 percent of those surveyed said the number one obstacle to their success is the cost of college and balancing work and school. With insufficient resources, a whopping 38 percent can’t cover tuition and fees, while an increasing number face housing insecurity and homelessness. One in three students can’t cover housing costs, which is the greatest expense and greatest contributor to the state’s nation-leading inflation rate.

Then there is the hunger and food insecurity students face. Students reported monthly food insecurity at rates ranging from 27 to 47 percent, with rural areas suffering the most. These first-hand accounts bring life to the statistics we have heard from other basic needs studies from The Institute for College Access and Success and the Hope Center.

It is wholly unacceptable that any California student working toward a more promising future is deciding between meals, shelter and tuition. The fact that low-income students, students of color and first-generation students struggle the most is a daunting reality we must address.

Massive action is required. If we allow our students to continue to struggle with basic needs while trying to get an education, our idea of public higher education will be on life support.

So, what do we do about it?

First, let’s acknowledge that the diverse student population of today has evolved to include many backgrounds and represent many different paths to higher education.

The SEARS initial insights report, issued in September, pointed out that college affordability is not a problem of public versus private, California State University versus the University of California versus the California community colleges. It is an across-the-board problem for all of our state’s college students, and an across-the-board solution is needed.

Let’s address the real needs of students, decide how to reform financial aid and expand other services. Our education segments and others must work together to recognize that financial assistance for housing and other living expenses is a critical factor for student success and must be addressed rationally. This includes the way the state and systems work with regional partners, the business sector, community-based organizations, and philanthropic organizations.

These are challenging but exciting times, and working together is paramount to ensure those in college succeed and fuel the future workforce and economy.

Marlene Garcia is the executive director of the California Student Aid Commission. Monica Lozano is president of the College Futures Foundation, which funded SEARS.