In College but Hungry and Homeless
The latest report on food and housing insecurity from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab is devastating. A survey of 43,000 students in 66 institutions in 20 states and the District of Columbia suggests that 36% of university students lack proper nourishment or housing or both. For community colleges, the number is even worse, with 42% of students suffering without proper food and 46% homeless.
Another damning result of the study was that only 48% of the university students and 41% of the community college students surveyed felt “completely secure.” Those were the lucky ones who had not experienced housing or food problems during the previous 12 months – less than half of all the students.
This is how the next generation is making its way through college.
There are some who might find flaws with the HOPE Lab’s data. It is not based on a proper statistical random sampling, and the survey used to gather the data was purely voluntary. So even though it covered 66 colleges and universities, 31 of which were community colleges and the rest four-year colleges and universities, and despite the 43,000 responses being from across the nation, the data likely has some errors. But despite the issues noted, the data does correlate well with other, better-controlled studies. The University of California (UC) system found that 42% of its students were food insecure (based on data from the UC Nutrition Policy Institute), and the parallel California State University (CSU) system determined that 42% of its students suffered from a lack of proper nourishment. The CSU analysis also showed that some 11% of the university’s students had experienced homelessness at least once in the previous 12 months.
When such stresses are added to a young person’s burdens in the already-challenging arena of college, the outcomes are not good. Several studies showed that food insecurity is tied to lower grades in college. Other studies showed that housing insecurity, manifested in everything from what is coyly referred to as “couch surfing” to sleeping in a car, staying in a shelter or needing to sleep outdoors, has a high correlation both with poor grades and the ability to complete classes or even graduate. Related issues include poor physical health, depression and higher stress.
As in many other parts of life, racial characteristics have a major connection with the likelihood of being either homeless or food insecure in college. The
HOPE Lab survey suggests that black students are 17 percentage points more likely than non-hispanic white students to experience food insecurity and that homelessness is higher for Native American students than for those in other categories.
One survey item showed how important the federal Pell Grant is in minimizing both food insecurity and homelessness. Originally designed to completely cover the costs of college, the Pell Grant showed up as providing “a 14-20 percentage point gap in food and housing insecurity and a 4-5 percentage point gap in homelessness compared to non-pell recipients.” those at risk for homelessness or poor nourishment are also the same ones who tend to work more heavily while in college. While this does supplement income and allow for a lower likelihood of food or housing issues, the act of working these longer hours makes it much harder to study effectively and achieve good grades in class. This points to a need for other kinds of solutions than just more local jobs for students to deal with the overall problem.
As to what to do about the problem, there are several promising options noted in the HOPE Lab study.
One is student-created programs. These include organizations such as Challah for Hunger, a student-focused group whose Temple University Chapter raised over $14,000 for that school. Students for Students, also known as the Bruin Shelter (after the UCLA mascot name), was founded by Louis Tse, who lived in his car while at UCLA to save money to start the shelter. And there is also the Human Services Resource Center, which was founded by the Associated Students of Oregon State University. It helps with funds for food, a textbook-lending program and financial strategy guidance for those struggling with the high costs of higher education.
Another concept is students helping others directly. This includes programs like Donor to Diner, which encourages students to donate meals through their dining center in a sort of “pass it on” program. A similar program at UCLA eventually spread nationwide to involve campus food-service providers in the nonprofit called Swipe Out Hunger, which allows students “swiping” their food cards to automatically pass on funds to others at the same time.
There are also a growing number of programs in which students help educate and take on advocacy roles in leading the charge for help and change on campus. Some colleges (like Elgin Community College) put this in place by doing their own surveys to make sure they are always aware of how big the problems really are.
Augustana College has established what is known as the Food Friends program. Its faculty and other staff are involved in helping explain the impact of food and housing problems on students’ abilities to succeed in school. And then there is the Calfresh Outreach program, which helps students anywhere within the California college and university systems to learn about what benefits they are eligible for and how to find help getting them.
These are good options, but, unfortunately, they represent mostly patchwork, after-the-fact fixes to a problem that is already out of control. There is a clear need for programs that support and catch students who are already at risk for the financial and other problems that drive student food insecurity and living either on a couch, in a car or on the street. There is a need for services that are considered part of the norm and not something that those who want to make use of them feel ashamed to use. In this category is Amarillo College’s Advocacy and Resource Center (ARC), which uses predictive analytics and a variety of targeted marketing techniques to reach students at risk early on, before their problems snowball out of control. Its facility is located right in the heart of the campus and welcomes all. Another program, Single Stop, is a nationwide non-profit that helps identify students who might be eligible for public benefits and helps ensure that those who qualify for and deserve help get it.
The truth of the matter is that while college and university costs keep rising across the country, the safety nets that used to exist to support those most in need have vanished over the years. While federal and state supports for corporations have risen and lower taxes for the rich have spread, there is now less money available for everything from the Pell Grant to other forms of student aid. The balance has shifted away from supporting these important citizens of the United States – those who could become our business and political leaders – to letting way too many of them struggle at one of the most critical times of their lives. Politicians and policy-makers at every level need to stand up and do something about this problem before it completely overtakes the future of the country.
The North America Procurement Council is seeking organizations interested in receiving AMERO grants for student housing and meals. Grants can be applied for at www.amerogrants.org.