Subsisting on ramen noodles and living in a rundown house is often viewed as a right of passage for college students. But the reality of hunger and homelessness on college campuses is much more serious than this stereotype would suggest.
More than one-third of students at four-year schools experienced some form of food insecurity — or the limited ability to access nutritious food in a safe and socially acceptable way — in the 30 days leading up to a survey of 43,000 students at community and four-year colleges across the country. At community colleges, the share of students struggling to access food was 45%, according to the survey, conducted researchers at Temple University and at the Wisconsin Hope Lab, a Madison, Wisc.-based nonprofit that researches inequity in higher education.
Students at both four-year colleges and community colleges also faced challenges finding housing. About 36% of survey respondents at four-year schools said they faced housing insecurity in the last year, including struggling to pay their full rent or utility bills. At community colleges, roughly 46% of students were housing insecure.
The findings indicate that, contrary to the popular perception of higher education as an enclave for well-resourced young people, hunger and housing insecurity aren’t just limited to community college students.
In some cases, students’ housing situations were even more dire; nearly 10% of students at four-year schools and 12% of students at community colleges reported experiencing homelessness in the past year.
The study, released Tuesday, is the latest in a series presented by the Hope Lab examining the challenges college students face with hunger and homelessness. The 2017 version is the first to include responses from students at four-year schools across the country; previous studies focused only on community college students or only included students from four-year schools in a specific region.
The findings indicate that, contrary to the popular perception of higher education as an enclave for well-resourced young people, hunger and housing insecurity aren’t just limited to community college students, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple University and one of the authors of the study.
Those schools typically have higher populations of students who are working, commuting to school and may have other responsibilities — like children — that observers may associate with challenges like food and housing insecurity. “We actually show you evidence that these challenges do affect students who live on campus, that they do affect students who have meal plans,” Goldrick-Rab said.
People hold such strong stereotypes about four-year college students, Goldrick-Rab said. “We’re just thinking of 18-year-olds who want to have fun,” she said. That may partly explain why higher education leaders, policymakers and others may be hesitant to acknowledge the reality of hunger and housing challenges on four-year college campuses.
But today’s college students face economic challenges that weren’t present for their parents and grandparents, including the cost of college, which has grown over the past several years, relatively stagnant wage growth and a challenging job market when they leave school. “They’re facing a tough world,” Goldrick-Rab said.
Food pantries have proliferated at colleges over the past several years to help provide hungry students with easier access to food.
Although the challenges of food and housing insecurity among college students are certainly worse today than several decades ago, Goldrick-Rab suspects students have been struggling quietly to access these basic needs for years.
Recent research on this topic as well as a yearly conference hosted by Goldrick-Rab are bringing attention to the struggles students face. Food pantries have proliferated at colleges over the past several years to help provide hungry students with easier access to food.
But Goldrick-Rab would like to see higher education leaders and policymakers looking beyond pantries. She suggests colleges think about ways to prevent food and housing insecurity, such as offering emergency housing or providing students with free legal aid when they’re facing challenges with their landlords.
There are also steps policymakers can take — and in some states already have taken — including making it easier for working college students to access food stamps or requiring colleges to ensure students have access to basic necessities at their colleges, like showers.