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Housing, Food Insecurity Plague Many American College Students, Study Suggests

A study suggests a troubling number of the nation's college students are food or housing insecure.EXPAND
A study suggests a troubling number of the nation's college students are food or housing insecure.
iStock/TheaDesign

Nearly half of America's college students don't have a safe, affordable and consistent place to live, and nearly 4 in 10 don't have reliable access to food.

Perhaps most troubling, 17% of the nation's college students were homeless at some point in the past year.

Those are the conclusions of a survey of students at 227 colleges and universities nationwide, including the Dallas County Community College District. The report was released earlier this month by Temple University's Hope Center for College, Community and Justice.

The report points to what researchers call "a previously invisible crisis of basic needs insecurity" that has the potential to derail the academic careers of a huge percentage of the nation's college students. Higher education leaders say the effects of that crisis are evident at colleges in North Texas.

"When students are hungry, they're not focused or concentrating," said J.J. Larson, associate director of student services for health and well-being at Richland College.

During the survey, researchers gathered online questionnaires from about 167,000 students at 227 two- and four-year colleges and universities nationwide. Of that total, 39% said they had been food insecure in the past 30 days, and 46% said they had been housing insecure sometime in the previous year.

Students who reported being food insecure fell along a broad spectrum. A sizable percentage of students — 45% at two-year colleges and 38% at four-year colleges and universities — said they couldn't afford to eat balanced meals. At the more extreme end, 5% of two-year college students and 2% of four-year college students said they'd gone an entire day without eating at least three times in the last 30 days because they didn't have money for food.

Half of all students at two-year colleges and 35% at four-year colleges and universities said they'd experienced housing insecurity in some form over the past year. That included 23% of two-year college students and 15% of four-year college students who said they'd had a rent or mortgage increase that made it difficult to pay. About 17% of respondents at two-year schools and 16% of those at four-year schools had been homeless sometime in the previous year.

The study is the fifth in a series of annual surveys conducted by the Hope Center. Last year, a report from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign called into question the conclusions of several studies that pointed to a growing food security crisis on America's college campuses, saying discrepancies in the way hunger is measured cast doubt on their findings. The Illinois researchers concluded that more research into the issue is needed.

But Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy at Temple and founder of the Hope Center, told the online education news outlet InsideHigherEd that, even when accounting for the full estimated margin of error, the center's study suggests that a large percentage of students still have basic needs that are going unmet.

“How far off are we? Are we OK with that?” she said. “That’s what I want colleges to ask themselves. How far off do we have to be for you to decide that this isn't an issue?”

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Larson said students come to Richland College with a huge range of needs and financial situations. Community colleges can be a good option for lower-income students, she said, because tuition costs are lower than those at four-year universities and they're geared toward students who are living with their parents or other family members. But that means many of Richland's students don't have much financial flexibility, she said. Some students are doing fine financially until a car breaks down and they can't get to work. Others may be spending their nights in spare bedrooms and on couches of friends and family, without a stable place to stay.

Others are in even more difficult situations, Larson said. She knew of a student at the college who was living in a homeless shelter while going to school. The student had arranged rides to and from campus each day but didn't have a quiet, stable place to study or do homework at night.

The community college district has staff members called navigators who work with students who need extra support, Larson said. That support could be extra help passing a class, or it could be access to food, stable housing or affordable child care. Most of the district's campuses also have food pantries, she said.

There's a growing awareness among higher education administrators and faculty that food and housing insecurity are a major problem for students, Larson said. In years past, when a professor spotted a student falling asleep in an 8:30 a.m. class, he or she might have assumed that student had stayed out late partying the night before, she said. Now, Larson said, more professors know that students who have trouble staying awake in early-morning classes may be sleeping in their cars.

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