College students struggling with hunger has been a growing concern for some time. Over the last decade, the number of food pantries on campuses has swelled from 80 to around 800. But surveys on the issue have been limited to colleges that participated voluntarily, leaving the true extent of the problem unknown.
Now, new data from the 2020 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study has provided the first nationally representative picture: more than one in five undergraduates experience food insecurity.
“We’re talking about four million people whose experience was invisible. It’s staggering in a nation this wealthy,” said Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, an independent consultant, senior fellow at Education Northwest, and founder of The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University, who published an analysis of the data.
The study, which featured responses from nearly 100,000 students, found that 23% of undergrads and 12% of grad students experience food insecurity, rates higher than those among the general public. Food insecurity is defined as the limited or uncertain availability of adequate food or the ability to obtain that food in a socially acceptable way. The study also found that 8% of undergraduates and 5% of grad students experience homelessness.
“There’s an alarming percentage of students who are enduring physical and emotional trauma,” said Jeff Webster, director of research at Trellis Company, a nonprofit that researches food insecurity in higher ed. “But it also speaks to their resilience, that they believe so strongly in the mission of going to college and what that can do to transform their lives that they’re willing to make the sacrifices”
The cause is what Goldrick-Rab calls “the new economics of college.” The cost of living has surged, and the increase has not been captured in colleges’ calculations of student expenses. This has led to students getting less financial aid than need. Indeed, 21% of students whose full financial need was considered to be met by grants were food insecure.
“Their estimates are wrong,” said Goldrick-Rab. “If I’m meeting someone who’s going to go to college, I say add $10,000 a year to what you think it’s going to cost.”
Goldrick-Rab also noted that government programs to feed people often exclude students.
“It’s a lot harder to get SNAP if you’re in college,” she said. “That’s by design.”
The study also revealed data by institutional type. Food insecurity was highest at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (39%), and for-profit colleges and universities (32%). But it was present at all kinds of institutions, including public four-years (22%) and private four-years (18%), countering the perception that food insecurity is mostly an issue for schools that serve predominantly lower-income students.
There were also significant disparities by race. Food insecurity affected 35% of Black students, 30% of Native American students, and 25% of Hispanic students, as well as 18% of whites and Asians. There were similar patterns in homelessness.
Goldrick-Rab attributed these differences to a number of factors, predominantly the wealth gap between BIPOC and white families. She also noted that students of color get less financial aid on average, that the schools that they attend often have fewer resources to assist them, and that they must contend with stereotypes and stigma that may make them less likely to access help.
The data defied preconceived notions about students who are hungry: that they’re lazy, untalented, or not taking advantage of resources that are available to them.
“In terms of stereotypes that people have of how students end up in these situations, they tend to think that it’s students who don’t do the FAFSA, who don’t apply for things, who have a too-high price for college that’s partly their fault,” said Goldrick-Rab.
However, the data show that although 31% Pell recipients had food insecurity, 17% of non-Pell recipients did as well. They also reveal that many students who have jobs are still hungry. 25% of students working 20-39 hours a week reported food insecurity, as did 21% of those working 40 hours a week or more.
“The kinds of jobs [these students] can get just don’t pay enough,” said Goldrick-Rab. “A lot of those people have a lot of debt already. So, they’re working, but they have a lot of bills.”
The expenses can be such that even students from families earning over $132,000 per year are affected: 11% of them reported food insecurity. Good grades are also no barrier to hunger: 18% of students with high school GPAs above a 3.0 didn’t have enough food access.
“This kind of poverty is not about lacking talent,” said Goldrick-Rab. “Being a smart person and doing well in high school does not shield you completely from falling on hard times in college.”
Surveys for the study were completed starting in March 2020, right as the COVID-19 pandemic began to hit with full force. Webster believes that this might have increased the number of food insecure students.
“A lot of those in the service industry were highly affected,” he said. “A lot of college students [did] that. I think that did affect things.”
But Webster thinks that the data is still reflective of circumstances on the ground today, citing annual surveys done by Trellis that consistently show a significant level of student food insecurity.
Goldrick-Rab believes that the count might be an underestimate.
“My guess is that because it was early in the pandemic, there were a lot of students who were in a lot of trouble who probably were never able to take this survey. They either dropped out or didn’t get the email,” she said. “Other people might argue that there was more help available to students during this time, so maybe things are actually worse now compared to then.”
Webster believes that campus-level changes are important to fighting student food insecurity, including the hiring of campus officers who can help students maximize their access to public assistance and a re-evaluation of how financial aid is be distributed. But he noted that there are limits on what schools can do.
“You can’t food pantry your way through the magnitude of these issues,” Webster said.
Goldrick-Rab suggested changes to federal policy: increasing emergency aid, helping colleges accept SNAP benefits on campus, and expanding the national school lunch program into higher ed. She hopes that the newly available data can make a tangible difference.
“Policymakers do not act on things that the feds don’t collect data on,” she said. “Now they have to act.”
Jon Edelman can be reached at JEdelman@DiverseEducation.com