As college enrollment in the United States becomes more socioeconomically diverse, campus administrators increasingly grapple with how to help low-income students overcome challenges related to housing and food. In recent months, lawmakers in multiple states have responded with legislation aimed at helping ensure college students’ basic needs are met so they can focus on completing their degrees and certificates.
This past summer, for example, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill making it easier for low-income college students to qualify for CalFresh, the state’s food assistance program. A new law in Tennessee that took effect July 1 requires colleges and universities statewide to provide homeless students with access to on-campus housing during and between academic terms.
While there are no nationwide estimates for the number of college students who are homeless or experiencing food insecurity — a lack of regular access to affordable food, particularly nutritious food — Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice conducts an annual survey of college students’ basic needs. A report the center released earlier this year finds that 17% of the nearly 86,000 students surveyed at 123 two- and four-year institutions said they had been homeless within the past year. Meanwhile, 45% said they had been food insecure during the last 30 days.
As awareness of the problem grows, Sara Goldrick-Rab, the scholar who founded the Hope Center, says she hopes policymakers bring forward additional changes. Congress has not taken action yet on the proposed College Student Hunger Act of 2019, introduced in July. The bill would, among other things, allow more college students to participate in the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as SNAP or food stamps.
Because of her expertise in the field, journalists often seek out Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple, for interviews. We asked her what she wished journalists knew about student homelessness and food insecurity and how they could improve their coverage. Here’s the advice she offered:
- When using data collected via a survey to explain how many college students experience homelessness or food insecurity, note the number and types of colleges that participated in the survey.
“It’s really important that they [journalists] talk about the number of students and colleges in the survey,” Goldrick-Rab says, explaining that this prevents news outlets from overstating or mischaracterizing the study’s findings and helps hold higher education institutions accountable for paying attention to students’ basic needs. Only some colleges — primarily, community colleges and public universities — have allowed academic researchers to conduct studies on these topics. Few private colleges and almost none of the most prestigious ones have participated in surveys. No for-profit college has, Goldrick-Rab says.
“When we’re written up [in news articles], I always explain this issue, but it seems like it gets skipped,” she says. “We need to give these other colleges credit for their willingness to even look [at the problem].”
She adds that no academic studies on this topic are based on a nationally representative sample of colleges or students, which means their findings cannot be generalized to colleges and college students nationwide. Findings only apply to the schools and students who answered the specific survey the reporter is focusing on.
“The real story,” Goldrick-Rab says, “is the federal government hasn’t even bothered to collect nationally representative data. We’ve gone from having no numbers to numbers from underfunded, small studies when what we deserve to have are federally funded, legislatively mandated, nationally representative samples.”
In 2015, Goldrick-Rab’s research team began petitioning the federal government to assess college students’ basic needs as part of its National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, a survey conducted every two years used to collect data on the characteristics of students in postsecondary education. In 2020, those questions will be included for the first time, she says.
- If a college opens a food pantry, ask campus administrators what else they are doing to address food insecurity and homelessness.
“It is not news to say X, Y or Z college has a food pantry anymore,” Goldrick-Rab says. “It has become a thing [for colleges] to say, ‘We addressed food insecurity,’ and all they do is open a food pantry.”
She says journalists “should always ask ‘What else?’ and ‘What are you doing to prevent the problem?’” She also suggests asking how many students use the food pantry and other, similar assistance programs that are available at school — to get a sense of whether the administration is reaching enough of the students who need such help. An estimated one-third of public university students and half of community college students are food insecure, Goldrick-Rab explains.
Another suggestion: If the college you’re covering offers emergency aid — a small amount of money to cover a financial emergency such as a car repair bill — ask how much money the college spends on emergency aid, how many students apply for help and how fast the money is made available.
“The real story is these funds are small, move slowly and serve very few people,” she says.
She says journalists can learn a lot by also asking about a college’s housing program. “Usually, the college will help with food, but not affordable housing,” Goldrick-Rab says. “Ask them, ‘How much money do you make from housing on campus?’ They often make a profit. They make money off their housing. They make money off of their meal plans.
- Understand that food insecurity and hunger are not the same thing. Both, however, can hurt students’ progress toward a degree.
“Hunger is, in many ways, an oversimplification of the problem,” Goldrick-Rab explains. “You could skip meals and, eventually, you don’t perceive hunger — but you’re still being deprived of food.
“An easy way to think about it: Think about how athletes’ performance is hampered if they don’t get adequate nutrition,” she adds. “We all know that the same thing is true for people in the classroom. For example, low blood sugar — it’s a bad idea for learning.”
Research shows students who don’t have enough food are more likely to have lower grades and poorer health than those who do. The proportion of students who experience food security appears to vary by institution type and among student groups, with racial and ethnic minorities being most likely to skip meals or go hungry, according to studies.
- Remember that the vast majority of college students don’t fit the image promoted by pop culture: someone who just finished high school, attends a four-year institution, has no children and lives on campus. Don’t perpetuate that stereotype.
About 15% of U.S. college students live on campus, Goldrick-Rab says. That means 85% live elsewhere in houses, mobile homes, apartments and other residences. Higher education, she says, “is an off-campus story.”
She adds, “This is a story about eviction. This is a story about affordable housing … They [journalists] have to understand most of these students are working and going to school and 4.3 million have children. These are the things to be writing about. If you’re writing about an 18-year-old, don’t assume the parents are paying or anything. Ask them who pays for what. You’re really getting deep as soon as you ask that question. It’s a real eye-opener.”
- Recognize that the term “homeless” means different things to different people. And organizations, including government agencies, sometimes define it differently.
Being homeless doesn’t necessarily mean someone is sleeping on the street or in a car. It can mean sleeping on a friend’s sofa due to the lack of an alternative. Many college students don’t realize this and, therefore, don’t consider themselves homeless. Goldrick-Rab warns against using the term when talking to students about their living arrangements.
“They don’t use that language and they don’t use those labels,” she says. “Seek students having trouble affording to eat on a regular basis. Ask, ‘When did you last eat a real meal?’ and some will say it hasn’t been in the last 24 hours. Ask students, ‘Do you have a safe and affordable place to live?’”
Goldrick-Rab says only a fraction of the students who meet the federal definition of homelessness consider themselves homeless. “A student who’s couch surfing isn’t going to say they’re homeless, but they don’t have a safe, reliable place of their own,” she says.
She points out that unstable housing can affect learning and a student’s ability to stay in school.
“Housing insecurity — unstable, unaffordable and unsafe living conditions — can mean a student is not able to pay their electric bill or having it cut off from time to time,” she says. “It can mean they are living with someone who’s treating them badly, but they have nowhere else to go. It can mean they live in campus housing but don’t have somewhere to go for spring break and vacation.”
- Keep in mind that lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender students face a particular set of challenges when it comes to food and housing insecurity.
LGBT students often face discrimination as well as rejection by their families, Goldrick-Rab says. Rifts with family members can mean suddenly losing an important source of financial help. LGBT students often have trouble finding shelters that accept them, she says.
“But it’s not just that they can’t go to shelters,” she says. “They’re at a higher risk because the financial aid formula wants to assume they’re supported by parents. It’s a public policy flaw. The problem is the formula assumes your parents help you when they don’t, even when they are more likely to be estranged.”
- Educate yourself about federal financial aid policies and the shortcomings of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, commonly known as the FAFSA.
Goldrick-Rab notes that financial aid policies — including the FAFSA — have failed to keep up with changes to the student body. These policies were created years ago, when a higher proportion of college students were wealthier and their families were more likely to provide financial assistance, according to Goldrick. Today, some college students send money home to help their families make ends meet.
Says Goldrick-Rab, “To me, if we saw more stories about the fact that even students who fill out the FAFSA don’t get what they need, people would understand there’s no such thing as a free ride [using free forms of college financial aid] anymore.”
Here’s a list of research and readings Goldrick-Rab recommends for journalists:
- Hallett, Ronald E.; Crutchfield, Rashida M.; Maguire, Jennifer J. Addressing Homelessness and Housing Insecurity in Higher Education Strategies for Educational Leaders, 2019.
- Goldrick-Rab, Sara. “How Financial Aid Betrays the Modern Family,” The Atlantic, 2016.
- Poppendieck, Janet. Sweet Charity? Emergency Food and the End of Entitlement, 1999.
- U.S. Government Accountability Office August 2019 Report to Congressional Requesters, “More Information Could Help Student Parents Access Additional Federal Student Aid.”
- U.S. Government Accountability Office December 2018 Report to Congressional Requesters, “Food Insecurity: Better Information Could Help Eligible College Students Access Federal Food Assistance Benefits.”
Other academics with expertise in this field:
Rashida Crutchfield, associate professor in the School of Social Work at California State University, Long Beach.
Nick Freudenberg, professor of public health at City University of New York and director of the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute.
Katharine “Katie” Broton, assistant professor in the College of Education at the University of Iowa.
Suzanna Martinez, researcher at the Nutrition Policy Institute at the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources.
Aydin Nazmi, professor of food science and nutrition at California Polytechnic State University.
Looking for more research on food insecurity? Check out our collection of research on how access to food can affect college students’ grades and mental health.
The primary image for this piece was obtained from the Flickr account of Oregon State University and is being used under a Creative Commons license. No changes were made.