House and Home

Study finds hundreds of students at 10 different community colleges reported homelessness, food insecurity or both.

December 7, 2015

A study released Friday found significant proportions of community college students at a variety of institutions around the country reported high levels of food and housing insecurity. Thirteen percent said they experienced some form of homelessness while a student, and more than half said they had experienced at least some level of food insecurity.

“Such high rates of food and housing insecurity among hardworking college students indicate that the nation faces a serious crisis,” write two of the study’s authors -- Sara Goldrick-Rab, founding director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, and Katharine Broton, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison -- in a New York Times op-ed about their study’s results. “Much of the conversation in Washington concerning college costs -- whether it’s about simplifying the financial aid application or refinancing student loans -- seems almost trivial in comparison with the problems these students face.”

HOPE released the study in collaboration with the Association of Community College Trustees, the nonprofit Single Stop and the annual web-based Healthy Minds Study. Researchers sent web surveys to a random sample of students at 10 community colleges across the country with a response rate of 9 percent, or 4,312 students (which is on the low side for this type of survey). Some of the colleges, like Montgomery County Community College in Pennsylvania, operate in communities with lower-than-average poverty, others hew closer to the national average and one, Delgado Community College in Louisiana, is in an area with a very high poverty rate of 27 percent.

To measure food insecurity, the study uses six indicators from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Respondents agreed or disagreed with statements such as “The food that I bought just didn’t last and I didn’t have money to get more” (in the last 30 days), which 39 percent agreed with, or answered yes or no to questions like, “Were you ever hungry but didn’t eat because there wasn’t enough money or food?” to which 22 percent said yes.

Just under half of respondents had scores that indicated “high security,” or a negative response to all six indicators, while 52 percent reported at least some insecurity. One in five reported “very low security” (5-6 indicators).

Just over half of students surveyed also said they had experienced some form of housing insecurity in the past year, whether it was “difficulty paying rent,” “didn’t pay full amount of rent/utilities” or, among others, “moved in with another person due to financial problems.”

Thirteen percent reported experiencing homelessness in the previous year. Incidents ranging from being “thrown out of home” (5 percent) to being evicted (2 percent) to “staying in abandoned building” (3 percent). “These numbers are startling and indicate the need for a multipronged, comprehensive set of institutional, state and local policies to alleviate the barriers presented by poverty, so as to improve educational success,” Goldrick-Rab and Broton wrote in the Times.


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