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Housing and food insecurity affecting many college students, new data says


The fifth annual #RealCollege survey documenting food and/or housing insecurity affecting college students was just released, and its findings reveal a real and continuing problem across the country.

The 2019 survey, led by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University, was completed by more than 167,000 students at 227 community colleges and four-year colleges and universities in 44 states and the District of Columbia.

Though most students who were sent the survey did not respond, the number who did is unusually large for this kind of research. Seventeen percent of students who answered the survey reported being homeless at some point in the previous year, 39 percent said they were food-insecure and 46 percent said they faced some level of housing insecurity. Reasons that college students are facing insecurity in basic needs include the failure of financial aid to keep up with the cost of living and hesitancy among some employers to hire students who may have complicated schedules.

These numbers are not nationally representative, and there is not any such data on which all researchers agree. There is debate in the research community about the best way to determine the number of students facing housing and food insecurity, but Hope Center founder Sara Goldrick-Rab, a sociologist of higher education, said the latest #RealCollege findings are consistent with earlier surveys.

In 2018, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report on food insecurity among college students, stating that “increasing evidence indicates that some college students are experiencing food insecurity, which can negatively impact their academic success,” but it did not cite one best way to collect information. Since 2015, Goldrick-Rab said she and her team have asked the federal government to assess the security of students’ basic needs, and last fall, federal officials finally agreed to add questions about these issues to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.

This post about the survey and solutions was written by Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple and the country’s leading advocate on basic needs insecurity among college students.

By Sara Goldrick-Rab

Many policymakers have long pictured college students as privileged, even coddled, enjoying robust parental support while spending more time at parties than in class. With those images in mind, they have paid too little attention to the effectiveness of financial aid at making college affordable, and failed to ask important questions about why so many students are struggling to learn. Instead, they push efforts to hold colleges accountable for graduation rates and wages, without first considering that other factors beyond the institutions’ walls might also be culprits.

Five years ago that began to change when, for the first time, researchers began documenting a crisis undermining college attainment across the United States. Asking undergraduates questions about their life beyond the classroom, and in particular about their health and well-being, was a bit unusual. Assessing the security of their food and housing was unheard of. Nevertheless, driven by evidence from student interviews, my team persisted and began systematic data collection.

Our #RealCollege survey revealed that large numbers of college students were short of money for food and even dealing with homelessness. While the initial samples of students were small, as few colleges and universities would agree to allow these surveys, the body of evidence has grown.

The newly released fifth annual #RealCollege report summarizes evidence from more than 330,000 students enrolled at more than 400 colleges and universities. The results show that around 4 in 10 of those students were affected by food insecurity within the 30 days preceding the survey. Closer to 1 in 2 of those students were affected by housing insecurity, and about 16 percent experienced homelessness in the last year.

The estimates are higher for community college students but are by no means negligible for students at four-year institutions. The surveys have produced remarkably consistent results across states, regions, institutions and time. Other researchers in California, New York and Texas have identified very similar numbers in their independent studies.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office has systematically reviewed the evidence, as have other scientists. And while most students sent the electronic surveys in all of the studies never take them, researchers tend to find that students without adequate food or housing are far less likely to receive or complete electronic surveys given their time and financial limitations. Thus, the current estimates are likely conservative.

To be sure, most of the data thus far comes from public colleges and universities, and rarely from the flagships. The federal government has never collected this information from college students, though it will begin to this fall. But Anthony Jack and others are documenting these challenges in private colleges, even the most elite ones, and Tressie McMillan Cottom’s work clearly indicates that they must be present in for-profit colleges as well.

Thus, a once invisible problem is finally evident, one that undermines talent and hard work and reduces the nation’s stock of educated labor. What now?

The good news is that a national movement of students and faculty, college and community leaders, philanthropists and policymakers are working together to identify viable, effective and sustainable solutions.

As a result, there is a growing body of evidence on what to do. Solutions include meal voucher programs, subsidized housing, greater utilization of public benefits programs like SNAP and emergency financial aid. But these efforts require funding at a time when much of higher education is genuinely strapped for cash. While investing in students’ basic needs almost surely brings a strong return, upfront cash is required.

That is why it is incumbent on Congress to advance the many pieces of federal legislation now pending to help students succeed. The Food for Thought Act would begin to expand the National School Lunch Program to higher education, while the BASIC Act would establish a competitive grant program to help colleges develop a range of new supports.

Other bills would expand students’ access to SNAP, amend the Low Income Housing Tax Credit to increase the pool of affordable housing, and support former foster youths, a group at particular risk. These bills build on momentum create by similar legislation passed in many states.

This is a bipartisan effort; then-Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) was the first in the country to sign legislation authorizing an emergency aid program for two-year college students, while then-California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) was the first to sign a Hunger-Free Campus bill.

There are more than 25 million college students in the United States and more than 4,000 colleges and universities. Ours is a remarkably diverse system inclusive of all sorts of education and training programs. In 2020, community college is college. Welders and everyone else need some education beyond high school. We now have clear evidence that an overlooked challenge is getting in their way.

It is a national tragedy and a waste of taxpayer dollars if they never obtain those skills and complete their credentials simply because they could not get a good night’s sleep and three square meals a day.