Food, Housing Insecurity Prevalent Among College Students in U.S.

A survey of basic needs security among college students across the United States, which specifically evaluated access to affordable food and housing, revealed an unsettling absence of both at colleges campuses throughout the nation. Nearly 86,000 students participated in the survey at 123 two- and four-year institutions, which concluded that “the scope of the problem is substantial and should be cause for a systemic response.”

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Connecticut is one of only 11 states that did not have any higher education institutions that chose to participate.  That may be changing; officials indicate that participation in the 2019 study is being considered by at least one college or university here.  Vermont, New Hampshire and Rhode Island schools also did not participate, and only a single two-year school participated in Massachusetts.

Among the 33 participating four-year institutions were the University of Colorado, University of Delaware, University of Oregon, Boise State University, Queens College, La Salle University, and The College of New Jersey.

The #RealCollege survey was created by, and is administered by, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice based in Philadelphia. The 50-page report describes the results of the survey, administered in the fall of 2018. Among the findings:

  • 45% of respondents were food insecure in the prior 30 days

  • 56% of respondents were housing insecure in the previous year

  • 17% of respondents were homeless in the previous year

More than half of survey respondents from two-year institutions and 44% of students from four-year institutions worried about running out of food, and nearly half of students could not afford to eat balanced meals.

Homelessness affects 18% of survey respondents at two-year institutions and 14% at four-year institutions, the survey found.  Five percent of respondents at two-year institutions self-identify as homeless; 13% experience homelessness but do not self-identify as homeless. Two percent of respondents at four-year institutions self-identify as homeless; 12% experience homelessness but do not self-identify as homeless. The vast majority of students who experience homelessness temporarily stayed with a relative or friend, or couch surfed.

The survey also found “overlapping challenges” - students who lack resources for housing often also lack resources for food.

Seven in 10 community college students responding to the survey experienced food insecurity, housing insecurity, or homelessness during the previous year, whereas about six in 10 four-year students did. Thirty-nine percent of respondents from two-year institutions and 30% from four-year institutions were both food and housing insecure in the past year.

The survey also discovered sizable racial/ethnic disparities in basic needs insecurity among students. For example, the overall rate of food insecurity among students identifying as African American or Black is 58%, which is approximately eight percentage points higher than the overall rate for Hispanic or Latinx students, and 19 percentage points higher than the overall rate for students identifying as White or Caucasian.

Students who experience the highest rates of housing insecurity are those whose parent(s) have no high school diploma, and overall basic needs insecurity is more pronounced among older students, particularly students ages 26 and older, the survey results indicated. In addition, students with children experience higher rates of food insecurity (53%) and housing insecurity (66%) as compared with those who do not have children.

Although Connecticut did not participate in the national survey, U.S. Senator Chris Murphy issued a brief report highlighting similar findings in the state.  Murphy indicated that:

“At Connecticut’s four-year universities, one report found 17.5 percent of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities’ student body reported housing instability or homelessness. A student survey at the University of Connecticut found that that a quarter of students reported concerns of food insecurity and 30 percent of students reported skipping a meal. Furthermore, a study at Eastern Connecticut State University found that approximately 35 percent of students reported not having access to enough nutritious food and a study at Southern Connecticut State found that about 30 percent of undergraduate college students were food insecure.

Another study looked at rates of housing insecurity at Connecticut’s community colleges. 38 percent of students at Gateway Community College, 21 percent of students at Middlesex Community College, and 19 percent of students at Housatonic Community College have difficulty accessing affordable housing.”

Murphy also indicated that “Studies have also shown that food and housing insecurity often go hand-in-hand. One study, the Hunger on Campus report, found that 64 percent of food insecure students also reported experiencing some type of housing insecurity.”

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The 6-page report concluded that “No student should have to worry about where their next meal will come from. Yet, as the cost of college continues to increase, students are forced to make tough choices. Although the federal government makes an enormous investment in students through federal grants and loans, the federal government is letting too many students slip through the cracks.”

Murphy recommended “Improving our understanding of the issue nationwide and enacting changes to Pell, SNAP, and Federal Work- Study would significantly reduce basic needs insecurity across college campuses,” and indicated he would advocate for those changes when the next reauthorization of the federal Higher Education Act is considered by Congress.

The HOPE report made several recommendations for legislators, administrators, and others interested in addressing the issues highlighted in the National #RealCollege Survey:

  • Appoint a Director of Student Wellness and Basic Needs.

  • Engage community organizations and the private sector in proactive, rather than reactive, support.

  • Develop and expand an emergency aid program.

  • Ensure that basic needs are central to your government relations work at all levels

The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice is a nonprofit action research center focused on rethinking and restructuring higher education and social policies, practices, and resources to create opportunities for all students to complete college degrees.  Sara Goldrick-Rab is founder of the Hope Center for College Community and Justice and Professor of Higher Education and Sociology at Temple University.