AAC&U News, January/February 2017

Facts & Figures – Food and Housing Insecurities Disproportionately Hurt Black, First-Generation, and Community College Students

Two recent studies report pervasive levels of food insecurity and housing insecurity (the struggle to pay rent, mortgages, or utilities) among students at two- and four-year institutions. The first and largest of the studies, Hunger on Campus: The Challenge of Food Insecurity for College Students, analyzed responses from nearly 3,800 students from thirty-four community colleges and four-year institutions in twelve states. The second study, Struggling to Survive – Striving to Succeed: Food and Housing Insecurities in the Community College, surveyed 3,647 California community college students. Both studies reported that insecurities were more common with students of color (especially black students) and can have widespread educational consequences. Hunger on Campus reported that insecurities were also more common among community college and first-generation students and caused students to skip classes, withdraw from courses, or opt out of buying required textbooks. In addition, Struggling to Survive found that food insecure students were more likely to plan on dropping out. Most ominously, Hunger on Campus reported that interventions such as campus meal plans, Pell Grants, student loans, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have not been completely effective in eliminating food insecurity, requiring administrators and policy makers to reimagine their responses.

Food Insecurity and Housing Insecurity

  • Hunger on Campus found that 48 percent of students faced food insecurity in the previous month, with 22 percent reporting “very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry.”
  • Food-insecure students in that study were more prone to housing insecurity. Within the past year, 64 percent experienced housing insecurity, while 15 percent reported homelessness, “the most extreme form of housing insecurity.”
  • In Struggling to Survive, more community college students reported housing insecurity (33 percent) than food insecurity (12 percent). Three-quarters of students with food insecurity also experienced housing insecurity.

Poverty and Nontraditional Students

  • Hunger on Campus said that changing demographics, including increases in nontraditional and lower-income students, may contribute to high food and housing insecurity. Fifty-two percent of off-campus students who do not live with relatives are “at or near” the poverty line.
  • Nearly three-quarters of college students are “nontraditional students, meaning that they fit one of six criteria: they attend college part-time, are employed full-time, are financially independent, must provide for dependents, are a single parent, or do not have a high school diploma,” Hunger on Campus said. Twenty-four percent are “highly nontraditional” and meet four criteria, and 31 percent are “moderately nontraditional” and meet two or three criteria.
  • Fifty-six percent of first-generation students in that study reported food insecurity compared to 45 percent of other students.

Insecurity More Prevalent at Community Colleges

  • According to Hunger on Campus, 50 percent of community college students and 47 percent of four-year college students reported food insecurity. Twenty-five percent and 20 percent (respectively) had very low food security. At community colleges, “13 percent of all respondents (regardless of food insecurity) experienced homelessness, compared to 7 percent at four-year schools.”

Some Students of Color Face More Insecurity

  • Hunger on Campus, which surveyed a national sample of students at two- and four-year institutions, said that 57 percent of black students and 56 percent of Latino students reported food insecurity compared to 40 percent of white and 45 percent of Asian students.
  • Struggling to Survive, which surveyed community college students in California, reported that black students (15 percent/44 percent) and Southeast Asian students (14 percent/41 percent) faced food/housing insecurity at higher rates than Asian (8 percent/30 percent), Hispanic (13 percent/32 percent), and white (11 percent/29 percent) students.

Insecurities Affect Learning

  • Of students who reported either hunger or housing instability in Hunger on Campus, 81 percent said that the problems harmed their academic performance. The most common effects were missing class (53 percent), missing study sessions (54 percent), opting out of extracurricular activities (55 percent), and not buying textbooks (55 percent). A quarter reported dropping a class.
  • Struggling to Survive reported that 8 percent of community college students with food insecurity planned to drop out entirely, while only 3 percent of other students planned to do so. Students facing food/housing insecurity took more developmental writing (62/65 percent), reading (58/60 percent), and mathematics (71/74 percent) courses. These students felt less on-track, confident, in control, focused, and interested in their school work. They also felt that college was less worthwhile, felt less welcomed by faculty, and felt less engaged both inside and outside of the classroom.

Did You Know?

Neither student efforts to earn money nor financial aid have been entirely successful in solving the food insecurity crisis. According to Hunger on Campus, students with food insecurity had paying jobs (56 percent), enrolled in meal plans (43 percent at four-year institutions), received Pell Grants (52 percent), took out loans (37 percent), and used SNAP (25 percent).

Hunger on Campus argued that campuses and policy makers must “pursue a wide range of creative ways to address food insecurity, including the creation of campus food pantries, campus community gardens, food recovery programs, and coordinated benefits access programs. More significantly, policymakers should take steps to improve students’ access to existing federal programs, including expanding the SNAP eligibility requirements for college students, simplifying the FAFSA process (particularly for homeless students), and adding food security measurements to the annual National Postsecondary Student Aid Study.”

Editor’s Note: Figures from Struggling to Survive have been rounded in this article.

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AAC&U News is written and edited by Ben Dedman. If you have questions or comments about the newsletter's contents, please e-mail dedman@aacu.org.


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