If you read the national news about higher education, you might think everyone is angling for admission to the Ivy League or trying to pay off debt for degrees earned. To be sure, this summer’s Supreme Court rulings are clear signs of a badly broken higher education system. But they also neglect the fact that millions of college students are dealing with food insecurity and/or experiencing homelessness, and as a result most will never reach the finish line. This includes 35% of Black undergraduates, 30% of Native American students, and 25% of Latine students. Basic needs insecurity affects even the highest achievers. Tens of thousands of people who come to college with a B average or better in high school, and even those whose financial need is supposedly fully met with grants and scholarships, don’t have enough to eat.
Students have known about this problem for a long time, but it was often caricatured as an issue of bad spending, laziness, or an unwillingness to live on ramen. The surveys I and many other researchers fielded to try and put numbers to the challenge could only shed partial light, since most colleges and universities refused to participate. It is easy to say “the kids are alright” when there’s no quantifiable data to suggest otherwise. But finally, in spring 2020, the federal government asked undergraduates if they had enough to eat or a safe place to sleep. Now Congress and federal agencies have a full picture of the problem.
We can now see clearly: food insecurity and homelessness are affecting students everywhere, at all types of colleges and universities. Despite federal and state financial aid, 23% of undergraduates, an estimated 4 million nationally, lack the resources to afford adequate food on a regular basis. Eight percent experienced homelessness in the 30 days preceding the survey. This is a far bigger problem than the admissions prospects of the one percent who attend the 12 universities dominating public discussion.
Higher education’s promise of a path out of poverty is falling way short, and in too many cases college is creating poverty. At for-profit colleges, 32% of students are affected by food insecurity, and at Historically Black Colleges and Universities the rate is 39%. Even at private nonprofit doctorate-granting universities, the most gated in the nation, 18% of students experience food insecurity. Since their institutions wouldn’t allow it, their stories have not been told; their voices not heard. Just as K-12 institutions must engage with poverty, so too must all colleges and universities. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice work requires basic needs work—without it, those efforts will almost certainly fall short.
These struggles predate the pandemic. In fact, since the pandemic drove many of the most vulnerable students away from college, and some never make it to college because of these challenges, these latest numbers from spring 2020 may understate the problem. We must ensure that federal data collection continues so that policymakers know what they are dealing with. It is also essential because a diverse community of faculty, administrators, advocates, students, think tanks, and state legislatures, and even the U.S. Government Accountability Office, demands it. From nonprofits like Swipe Out Hunger, Believe in Students, Rise, College Housing Northwest, and College Promise, to membership organizations like the Association of Community College Trustees and American Council on Education, and even mainstream think tanks including New America, Urban Institute, The Education Trust, The Institute for College Access and Success, and the Brookings Institution, there are smart people in local communities actively working on solutions. Thanks to these entities and the hundreds of colleges and universities who are part of the #RealCollege coalition– which recognized it was long past time to stop being polite about what was happening to students and start getting real way before it was acceptable– students are now more likely to encounter emergency aid programs and some information about public benefits like SNAP while on campus.
Yet in too many places, the best students can hope for is a campus food pantry. These new numbers demand a much more comprehensive and effective approach from higher education leaders and policymakers at all levels, since eating increases the odds of graduation. While responses in states like California, Washington, Oregon, Wisconsin, Illinois, and New Jersey are helping some students in public colleges and universities, the federal government needs to demand support for students attending private institutions, including for-profit colleges. Tax dollars fund federal financial aid at these schools, and we shouldn’t allow that investment to be undermined by hunger. The health and economies of communities from coast to coast requires it.
This work should be bipartisan. When I testified before a Congressional committee about this challenge, Representative Tom Cole, a Republican from Oklahoma, was surprised and said that the decision to cut off access to food aid at 18 (the National School Lunch Program – an effective anti-hunger initiative– ends with high school) should be rethought. “If we’re going to send kids who we already know are food-challenged off to get a higher education, and we want them to have that opportunity, then the program ought to follow them. It’s not like they are going to magically and suddenly become affluent in college!”
It’s time to expand that program to higher education while also passing legislation to help students obtain SNAP and other public benefits while attending school, without demanding that they work long hours on top of classes to qualify. This is critical, especially as we approach the upcoming reauthorization of the Farm Bill. After all, food insecurity rates are substantial even among employed students. They are also significant among students whom, according to current financial aid measures and rules, have all the financial aid they need. Policymakers are working with bad data based on faulty assumptions and need to overhaul the system, whether with a new federal-state partnership, a promise program, or some version of free college.
The private sector would also benefit from getting engaged. Right now developers cannot qualify for the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit if they build affordable housing for full-time college students, but they should. Food service providers should receive subsidies and partner with Agriculture to expand food availability on campus. These are straightforward solutions for a wealthy nation that still clings to the American Dream. Millions of students have worked hard to attend college but paid an unconscionable price for that learning. Tell your trustees, presidents, policymakers, and neighbors—it’s time for immediate action.
Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab is author of Paying the Price, College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, senior fellow at Education Northwest, adjunct professor at the Community College of Philadelphia, and Founder of The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. She also created the #RealCollege Resource Library, a repository of free briefs, reports, and more materials to help advance supports for students’ basic needs. Her column appears here every month.