AAC&U News, June/July 2019
Facts & Figures

Majority of College Students Experience Food Insecurity, Housing Insecurity, or Homelessness

Feeling insecure about where to spend the night, or where to find the next meal, can have huge psychological and academic effects on college students, including poor physical and mental health and a decrease in completion, persistence, and credit attainment rates. A new survey from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, College and University Basic Needs Insecurity: A National #RealCollege Survey Report, includes responses from almost 86,000 students at 123 two- and four-year institutions. The survey found that more than 60 percent of students had experienced food insecurity within the past thirty days or housing insecurity/homelessness within the past year (see fig. 1). Certain groups of students faced a higher risk of basic needs insecurity: students at two-year institutions, African Americans, LGBTQ students, students with prior military service, former foster youth, students with prior criminal convictions, and students listed as “independent from their parents or guardians for financial aid purposes.”

Figure 1.

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Food Insecurity and Housing Insecurity Higher at Community Colleges

  • Rates of food insecurity, or “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food, or the ability to acquire such food in a socially acceptable manner,” were higher at two-year institutions, where 28 percent of students had very low food security and 19 percent experienced low food security (compared with 24 and 18 percent, respectively, at four-year institutions).
  • Students experiencing food insecurity reported several effects, including worrying “whether my food would run out before I got money to buy more,” being unable to “afford to eat balanced meals,” not making their food supply last and being unable to afford more food, and cutting or skipping meals even if they were hungry.
  • Housing insecurity, which includes “a broad set of challenges such as the inability to pay rent or utilities, or the need to move frequently,” also affected community college students at higher rates.
  • Sixty percent of students at two-year institutions and 48 percent of students at four-year institutions faced some form of housing insecurity, including finding it difficult to pay for housing because of rent or mortgage increases; being unable to pay their entire utilities, mortgage, or rent payment; or needing to move in with people due to financial problems.
  • The survey also assessed student responses for signs of homelessness, which the report defined as not having “a stable place to live.” Overall, 18 percent of respondents at two-year institutions and 14 percent at four-year institutions experienced a form of homelessness such as staying with a relative or friend or couch surfing, staying at a hotel/motel without a permanent home to return to, sleeping in a closed space not meant for human habitation, or sleeping outdoors.

Many Students Experienced Both Housing and Food Insecurity

  • Many students facing housing insecurity were also food insecure. “Basic needs insecurity varies over time, such that a student might experience housing insecurity during one semester and food insecurity the next. Some students are housing insecure during the summer and homeless during the winter,” the report said.
  • Overall, 70 percent of students at two-year institutions and 61 percent of students at four-year institutions faced either homelessness or housing or food insecurity in the previous year, and 39 percent of two-year students and 30 percent of four-year students were both food insecure and housing insecure.
  • At two-year institutions, 16 percent of students experienced both housing insecurity and homelessness, and 13 percent experienced both food insecurity and homelessness. These figures were slightly lower at four-year institutions, where 11 percent experienced housing insecurity and homelessness and 9 percent experienced food insecurity and homelessness.

Basic Needs Insecurity Higher for Many Marginalized Groups

  • Some demographic groups experienced higher rates of insecurity than others.
  • Food insecurity rates, housing insecurity rates, and homelessness rates were higher for students who identified as transgender, gay or lesbian, or bisexual, or who did not identify as male, female, or transgender, than they were for students identifying as male, female, or heterosexual/straight.
  • American Indian or Alaskan Native and Black students were the most likely ethnic groups to be food insecure or housing insecure, and American Indian or Alaskan Native students were also the most likely to be homeless.
  • Students who received Pell Grants, were listed as independent from their parents on FAFSA forms, had children, were divorced, had parents who did not earn a bachelor’s degree, were convicted of a crime, lived in foster care, had disabilities or medical conditions, or were employed are more likely than peers to experience basic needs insecurity.

Academics, Employment, and Insecurity

  • Students who experienced food or housing insecurity were less likely to earn A’s and more likely to earn B’s, C’s, or below (see fig. 2).
  • According to the report, the longer a student had been in college, the more likely they were to report housing and food insecurity. Students who were enrolled less than one year reported less food insecurity (40 percent) and housing insecurity (47 percent) than students who have been enrolled one to two years (46 percent for food insecurity and 55 percent for housing) or longer than two years (50 percent and 62 percent).
  • Part-time students also experienced food insecurity (47 percent) and housing insecurity (62 percent) at higher rates than full-time students (45 and 53 percent).
  • Students who had jobs were also more likely to face insecurities. According to the report, “The majority of students who experience food insecurity 68 [percent], housing insecurity 69 [percent], and homelessness 67 [percent] are employed. . . . Also, among working students, those who experience basic needs insecurity work more hours than other students.”

Figure 2.

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Using Public Support Systems

  • According to the report, “Students with basic needs insecurity are not accessing all of the public benefits that they could.”
  • Just 20 percent of food insecure students received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food stamps, the report said. “Likewise, only 7 [percent] of students who experience homelessness receive housing assistance.”
  • While SNAP, Medicaid or other public health insurance, and tax refunds were used the most, they were still underutilized compared with the number of students who likely qualify.

Supporting Students

  • While food pantries are increasingly common on campuses, they cannot alleviate all of the insecurities students face.
  • The report made several practical recommendations for institutions to support students facing basic needs insecurities:
    • “Appoint a director of student wellness and basic needs”
    • “Evolve programmatic work to advance cultural changes on campus”
    • “Engage community organizations and the private sector in proactive, rather than reactive, support”
    • “Develop and expand an emergency aid program”
    • “Ensure that basic needs are central to your government relations work at all levels”

Unless otherwise cited, images and information are included by permission of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice from their recent report, College and University Basic Needs Insecurity: A National #RealCollege Survey Report.

About AAC&U News

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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