In today’s job market, a college degree is next to essential. But students are struggling to pay for their education, forcing many to sacrifice some of life’s basic necessities.
Nearly 40 percent of U.S. college students can’t regularly afford nutritious food, leaving them hungry and malnourished. On top of that, 46 percent report either falling short or struggling to scrape up enough money to pay for their rent and utilities last year. And 17 percent experienced homelessness, meaning they didn’t have a regular and adequate place to live.
That’s according to a report released today by Temple University’s Hope Center for College Community and Justice. The report includes responses from nearly 167,000 students from 171 two-year institutions and 56 four-year institutions.
Today’s students bear the brunt of the highest tuition prices ever, which have outpaced inflation. And the financial aid and scholarships students receive don’t even begin to cover all of their expenses.
Notably, the situation is worse for some demographics than others, according to the report. Community college students, minorities and LGBTQ+ students face a higher rate of food and housing insecurities than their white, cisgendered peers.
Despite the shocking figures, student food and housing insecurity remains relatively invisible to the general public.
“Stereotypes of Ramen-noodle diets and couch-surfing partiers prevent us from seeing it,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, the founder of the HOPE Center, explained in a blog post. “They trick us into thinking that food insecurity is a rite of passage, that hunger and even homelessness among our students is normal. But it is time to admit that we have a serious problem in higher education.”
In addition to being detrimental to students’ mental and physical health, a lack of nutritious food and a safe place to sleep inhibits students’ abilities to process and retain information or even stay awake in the classroom. As a result, there is a higher risk of having their grades slip, which hurts their chances of graduating.
In that light, the authors of the report argue that addressing food and housing insecurities would promote student retention and degree completion, which would financially benefit both individual students and the greater economy.
“When a person gets a college degree, they pay more taxes themselves; they help make a healthier economy. And frankly, they’re healthier, which draws less on supportive services,” Goldrick-Rab said during a television interview with MSNBC.
Goldrick-Rab and her colleagues at the HOPE Center have spent the greater part of the past decade bringing attention to the hidden, but pressing, issue of students struggling to afford basic needs. For five straight years now, they’ve administered surveys to students across the United States to assess the rates of food and housing insecurities on college campuses.
Comparing this report with last year’s, things seem a bit better than they were. From 2018 to 2019, the number of students who claim to be food and housing insecure dropped by 6 percent and 10 percent, respectively. But the number of students who experienced homelessness remained the same.
The drop in food insecurity may be attributable to the increase of campus food pantries across the United States and the rise of nonprofit organizations, like Swipe Out Hunger, which has been around for a while but has gained greater footing as more public attention has been brought to the issue.
But more can be done, the authors urge.
In the report, they offer several suggestions to tackle food and housing insecurities, including expanding student access to campus support systems like food pantries and emergency aid programs, encouraging faculty to add basic needs security statements to their syllabus, supporting efforts to expand SNAP (commonly known as food stamps) access for students, creating a basic needs website listing supportive information like where to find free food or how to lower the cost of utilities, considering centralizing fundraising for and distribution of emergency aid across institutions, and discussing the current business model behind meal plans to see whether the approach could be shifted to enhance retention.
In a previous interview with The University Network, Goldrick-Rab also suggested additional means to address housing insecurities. “Colleges need to create more affordable housing rather than opt for expensive housing, partner with local developers and landlords, bridge connections to homelessness services and do everything they can to offer emergency aid,” she said.
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Jackson Schroeder is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. He is originally from Savannah, Georgia. Jackson has covered a wide range of topics, including sustainability, technology, sports, culture, travel, and music. He plays bass and guitar, and enjoys playing and listening to live music in his free time.