College Student Hunger and Homelessness: A Growing Crisis



In 2020, more than a third of college and university students lost work, more than one in 10 lost a loved one to COVID-19, and nearly 60 percent experienced food or housing insecurity, according to a new survey conducted by Temple University’s Hope Center for Community, College and Justice. The survey included responses from nearly 200,000 students attending more than 200 colleges and universities across 42 states. 

Specifically, food insecurity affected 39 percent of students at two-year institutions and 29 percent of students at four-year institutions. 

“What does this mean?” Christine Baker-Smith, the Hope Center’s executive director, asked during a virtual event hosted by the Hope Center. “It means I skipped a meal because I didn’t have money. It means I bought ramen because I couldn’t afford a healthier alternative. It means I skipped meals so that my kids had food. It means I skipped meals because I was worried about money running out.” 

Nearly half of the students surveyed (48 percent) experienced housing insecurity, meaning they were on the brink of homelessness, and 14 percent were (or currently are) homeless, meaning they don’t have a fixed, regular or adequate place to live. 

And hunger and homelessness disproportionately affect students from minority groups. Seventy-five percent of Indigenous, 70 percent of Black, 66 percent of Pacific Islander or Native Hawaiian, and 64 percent of Latinx students experienced some sort of basic needs insecurity, compared to 54 percent of white students. 

Solving student hunger and homelessness 

The Hope Center has been publishing reports on student hunger and homelessness since its inception in 2015. The 2020 statistics are staggering, and the Hope Center — and all those involved — want action. 

“The great thing about this data is that it is no longer a conversation of ‘we think’ or ‘we hope’ or ‘we’ve heard.’ The data is hard evidence to prove that the resources are needed,” said Frederick Shegog, an undergraduate student at West Chester University who, just five years ago, was in downtown Philadelphia dumpster diving, begging for change and addicted to drugs and alcohol. 

And by advocating for resources, Shegog is not simply encouraging colleges and universities to add more food pantries. He, the Hope Center and all of its allies are encouraging structural change in policies, practices and the way college students are viewed by college administrators, college faculty, lawmakers and the general public.

“If you have a student in your class and maybe he doesn’t look like he is paying attention, he seems sleepy, or something is going on, maybe it is because he has been up all night because he has to take care of his brother and sister,” Shegog added. “Maybe it is because … he was waiting at the bus stop for hours and he is cold. Maybe it is because of the fact that he doesn’t have what you have. And we need to understand that. We are not sharing this data to say ‘look at the problem.’ We are sharing this data to ask you to help us solve the problem.”

In its report, the Hope Center outlines more than a dozen ways that the federal government, state governments, colleges and universities can better support students. 

One solution is to establish a permanent federal emergency aid fund for college students, similar to what was established near the beginning of the pandemic. But the process needs to be made more straightforward so that aid is more accessible and applying for it is less stressful for students, as only 34 percent of the students who experienced basic needs insecurity applied for emergency aid during the pandemic, the authors noted. Among those who did apply for emergency aid, 60 percent said their experience was stressful. 

Another solution is to make public benefit programs like SNAP more accessible. A staggeringly low 18 percent of students facing basic needs insecurity received SNAP benefits in 2020, according to the report. States are encouraged to raise the gross income limit in SNAP and to provide clear and easy-to-understand information about who is eligible for SNAP and how to sign up. 

And colleges and universities can better support students by expanding campus aid services and by helping students better understand how they can receive help both on and off-campus. For example, professors’ syllabi could include information regarding where and how students who are experiencing basic needs insecurities can receive help. 

These are just a few of the many steps that government systems, colleges and universities can take to help students in need. For more information, check this Hope Center report.

FREE 6-month trial

Then, enjoy Amazon Prime at half the price – 50% off!

TUN AI – Your Education Assistant


I’m here to help you with scholarships, college search, online classes, financial aid, choosing majors, college admissions and study tips!

The University Network