Blog: Higher Ed Beat

Higher Ed: Hunger on Campus

Flickr/Salvation Army USA West (CC BY 2.0)

The stereotypes of the financially struggling college students are well-known. They live on ramen, share an apartment or house with several roommates, and work part-time for money to buy beer. They get summer jobs to cover college tuition and expenses. And they come from middle- and upper-class families, so if they do struggle sometimes to pay the bills, that scarcity is hip and cool.

A discussion at the Education Writers Association’s 69th National Seminar in Boston this month made a compelling case that these stereotypes don’t reflect reality and, in fact, often work against efforts to address the very real challenges faced by a growing number of college students.

Researchers estimate that by 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the United States will require at least some postsecondary education or training beyond high school, said panelist Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. More students from low- and moderate-income families who previously would not have gone to college are now on campuses pursuing degrees, but tuition is rising faster than inflation, medical care costs, or need-based financial aid. In addition to covering tuition and fees, these students also must buy books and supplies, pay for transportation to get to classes and cover living expenses, she said.

Some students also work to help support their families. That means students’ most basic needs — nutritious meals every day and a roof over their heads at night — might not be consistently met.

Officials on some college campuses are beginning to recognize that these external challenges can affect students’ success inside classrooms, and are setting up food pantries and other sources of help.

Philanthropy can pay for some of it, but experts on the “Hunger on Campus” panel agreed policy changes are needed to make college truly possible for all students.

“K-12 has a fairly robust safety net, but we do not have that set up for higher ed,” said Goldrick-Rab, who also is founding director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. She is currently working on a proposal to expand the national federal free school- lunch program from K-12 to college.

Goldrick-Rab and other researchers at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that jobs and financial aid don’t provide nearly enough money for a growing number of low-income undergraduates, who have limited or uncertain access to nutritionally adequate food or who regularly go without food altogether. Her research group surveyed more than 4,000 undergraduates at 10 community colleges across the nation and in December issued their report, “Hungry to Learn: Addressing Food & Housing Insecurity among Undergraduates.”

They found half of all community college students struggle with food and/or housing insecurity. Fully 20 percent had gone more than one day — or even multiple days – without food. Thirteen percent qualified as homeless, sleeping in cars, on the streets or in shelters. Another 39 percent were within a month of eviction because they couldn’t pay their bills.

The researchers also surveyed students at eight universities and two-year colleges in Wisconsin and found 45 percent of students at two-year colleges and 28 percent at four-year universities experienced food insecurity.

The Kresge Foundation, a private foundation with a $3.6 billion endowment, aims to promote postsecondary access and success for low-income, first-generation and underrepresented students in the U.S. and South Africa. Food and housing insecurity are among the issues that must be addressed to help college students succeed, along with childcare and transportation to classes, said panelist Rebecca Villarreal, a program officer for the foundation’s education program. She thinks of it as creating a higher education “ecosystem” connecting K-12, community colleges and four-year universities with health and human services, social service nonprofits, the business community, philanthropy and education nonprofits.

At Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, 1,000 of the college’s mostly first-generation and minority students receive federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. The college has a Single Stop center to connect students with social service agencies, free tax preparation, $25 grocery gift cards, and emergency funds to help cover food, housing and transportation through a foundation. Close to 2,500 students are served per year at the Single Stop, said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill.

“We need policy change rather than small donor help,” she said. “Philanthropy can’t do it all. This is a support-system issue. It’s not a problem of learning. It’s not a problem of intellect. It really is a problem of poverty.”

Shannon McAvoy, who also was on the panel, is growing the Pantry @NCC at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut. In her first year, she has increased pantry membership–students who regularly turn to the Pantry for food– from 76 to more than 200 members, who formerly were referred to as clients. She said she changed the language because she wanted to change the perception of food pantry users and create a judgment-free zone to make it more welcoming. The school supports the efforts, but not financially, she said.

Getting at the issues, and telling the stories of those who are being served, can be a challenge for reporters, said panel moderator Jamaal Abdul-Alim of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education.

Indeed, Eddinger responded that she’s “extremely protective” of Bunker Hill students, adding, “There won’t be poster boys or poster girls in my college.”

McAvoy, a 2011 Norwalk Community College graduate who struggled with food and housing insecurity as a student and single mother, takes the opposite approach. “I’m standing up to break the stereotype,” she said. When she gets inquiries from the media about the pantry, she finds many students want to tell their stories.

Goldrick-Rab said she’s cautiously optimistic progress will be made to help college students access benefits. It’s important to “put down bold policy markers” and work toward them, she said.

Even if the national free lunch program only extended to community colleges, most students there would meet the standards to qualify, she said, adding that colleges also might be more in tune with the challenges students face if they included questions about food and housing insecurity in their data collection efforts.

The story of students needing help to meet basic needs isn’t depressing, McAvoy said. “These are really motivated people [trying] to get their education, and they’re not looking for a hand-out. They’re just looking for a hand up.”