Paying for college tuition and the textbooks and materials needed for classes can be hard enough as it is. And whether you attend college part time or full time, go to community college, or a university, it can be difficult to scrap together money for food and housing. Add on also trying to maintain a social life and that can feel downright impossible. However, there hasn’t been much nationally comprehensive data about just how much food insecurity, housing insecurity, and homelessness affects college students.
Now, thanks to a report published this week by researchers at Temple University in conjunction with the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, there’s more information to help us understand just how dire the situation is for college students.
The report was based on approximately 43,000 students attending 66 institutions, including 31 community colleges and 35 four-year universities. The study encompassed 20 states and Washington D.C., and participation in the survey was voluntary, according to researchers. The sample included participants who identify as male, female, and non-binary, as well as students from a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds, ages. According to the report’s authors, it is “the largest national assessment of basic needs security among four-year students.”
Survey results showed that 36 percent of college students experience food insecurity in the past 30 days, and an additional 36 percent experience housing insecurity in the past year, while 9 percent of college students have reported being homeless in the previous year. These alarming new numbers are even higher when looking solely at community college students who experience these circumstances.
This year’s survey indicated that 42 percent of community college students indicated a struggle to get adequate amounts of food. Nine percent of those students reported having gone at least one day during the last month without eating because they didn’t have the money for food. In addition, 46 percent indicated that they have difficulty paying for housing and utilities.
In an interview with NPR, the report’s lead author, Sara Goldrick-Rab, explained what these numbers mean and why they matter so much. “It really undermines their ability to do well in school. Their grades suffer, their test scores appear to be lower, and overall, their chances of graduating are slimmer,” she said, adding, “They can barely escape their conditions of poverty long enough to complete their degrees.”
Essentially, the lack of food and resources adds a serious strain to college students’ ability to actively focus on school and the experience of actually being a student. For students experiencing housing instability or homelessness, risk of eviction, and inability to pay for utilities, among other issues can lead to high amounts of stress that may ultimately prevent them from doing well academically or socially. The report includes students who are living in shelters, couch surfing, staying with friends, or moving around campus and staying in different areas to get rest or find shelter. Students who experience food insecurity may have difficulty getting enough to eat, affording regular meals, and getting the nutrition they need to pay attention, study, and complete their degrees.
Notably, data from the report found that 21 percent of students who experienced homelessness said that they were in the situation because they had felt unsafe where they lived. Thirty-seven percent of community college students and 29 percent of four-year students reported that they had difficulty making food last for long enough periods of time and they did not have money to buy more in order to adequately feed themselves for longer. A quarter to one-third of students also reported skipping meals to save money. Among students who responded that they have experienced homelessness in the past month, 4 percent of students from 2-year institutions and 3 percent of students from 4-year institutions responded that they have experienced not knowing where they were going to sleep at night, even for one night in the past month.
Additionally, the report found significant rates of overlap in students being simultaneously food insecure, housing insecure, or homeless. Among community college students, it was found that approximately 22 percent have experienced both food and housing insecurity in the past year, and that 8 percent of those students experienced these in addition to homelessness. “Most remarkably, just 41% of community college students and 48% of university students were completely secure, never experiencing food or housing insecurity or homelessness during the past year,” the report authors write.
When speaking to the most surprising findings from the survey, Professor Goldrick-Rab said, “Homeless college students devote as much time to the classroom and to studying as do college students who are not homeless. However, they also work more, they commute more, spend more time taking care of other people and they sleep less.” The researchers responsible for the report are now urging colleges and universities to take these issues more seriously and work on providing more resources and services to students with these financial limitations.
If you want to see the results for yourself, the full report can be found here.
Related: What It’s Like to Be Homeless in College