In addition to balancing an academic workload with other responsibilities, about half of community college students struggle with food and housing, but few get access to the resources they need, according to a report released last week by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.
The report – written by Sara Goldrick-Rab and Katharine Broton of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Daniel Eisenberg of the University of Michigan – surveyed more than 4,000 undergraduate students at 10 community colleges in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, New York, California, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Overall, more than half (52 percent) of the respondents had been at least “marginally food insecure” in the last month, saying they couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals, cut the size of meals or skipped meals, or listed other challenges. More than half (52 percent) also said they had experienced some form of housing insecurity in the last year, and fully 13 percent said they had been homeless.
“Such high rates of food and housing insecurity among hard-working college students indicate that the nation faces a serious crisis,” Broton and Goldrick-Rab wrote in an opinion piece for The New York Times. “Much of the conversation in Washington concerning college costs — whether it’s about simplifying the financial aid application or refinancing student loans — seems almost trivial in comparison with the problems these students face.”
The news comes when students nationwide are struggling to pay for college, as tuition continues to rise faster than inflation, and the growth in financial aid fails to keep pace. The federal Pell Grant, for example, covered the full cost of attending community college when it was created in the early 1970s, and now covers just 60 percent, according to the report. Those factors combined have resulted in low income students having to pay more to attend school. A dependent student from the lowest income quartile, for example, would on average pay the equivalent of 40 percent of his or her family’s total income, whereas a dependent student from the highest income quartile would pay the equivalent of less than 20 percent of his or her family’s total income.
But the largest portion of the cost of attendance for community college students is living expenses, at 72 percent of the total cost, according to the report. The data show that many students struggle with those expenses, as financial aid doesn’t cover the full cost of attendance, and access to some social programs is limited.
More than one-third of the students who experienced food insecurity (39 percent) said that within the last 30 days, the food they bought didn’t last, and they didn’t have the money to get more. Of those who experienced housing insecurity, 22 percent said they had difficulty paying rent, and 18 percent said they didn’t pay the full amount of the rent that was due.
The survey also showed that food insecurity and housing insecurity tended to go hand in hand.
Students with low or very low food security were more likely to experience housing insecurity, and vice versa. Certain racial and ethnic groups were also more likely to face food and housing insecurity. African American and Hispanic or Latino students were more likely to face food insecurity (31 percent and 23 percent, respectively) than white or Southeast Asian students (19 percent and 15 percent, respectively). First generation college students were also more likely to face these challenges than students whose parents had attended college.
Despite these challenges, the survey revealed that the students who need help the most often don’t have access to social programs that can help ease their situations. Of the 39 percent of students who had low or very low food security, just 20 percent received food stamps.
“The main challenge these individuals face is figuring out what to do, and being able to afford the resources to take action,” the report said. “On the one hand, addressing the conditions of poverty in their populations is a clear imperative, and on the other hand, it does not feel easy or straightforward. Some struggle to move beyond goodwill and act, while others acknowledge concerns that external constituencies may unfairly judge the institution for admitting or failing to meet the full financial needs of these students.”
Goldrick-Rab and her team wrote in the report that community colleges may be able to take action toward helping students by partnering with outside emergency aid programs, or starting their own. Federal and state policymakers, they wrote, can also take action by aligning Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) eligibility for college students with eligibility for need-based aid, for example, or simplifying tax benefits to give targeted assistance to low-income individuals and families.
“Food and housing insecurity impairs academic performance of elementary and secondary school students, and it is likely that the same holds true for college students as well,” the report said. “With more than half of community college students in this survey indicating that they are struggling, the need for action is clear.”
Publication Date: 12/8/2015