Still Hungry

New report finds large numbers of students lack adequate food and shelter -- but the data are not representative.

April 4, 2018
 
Cover of HOPE Lab report, "Still Hungry and Homeless in College."

Students continue to go hungry on college campuses. While experts differ on the scope of the problem, the issue of students lacking basic needs, both food and shelter, has gained significant traction, both politically and among university administrators.

The new report released yesterday will likely restart the conversation over students' access to food -- it quickly attracted considerable media attention, even though its authors note that it can't be considered a national picture of these issues.

The study, the first to include four-year colleges and universities, comes from one of the most prominent researchers on this front, Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University and founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.

Previous work from the HOPE Lab has focused solely on community colleges, where issues will be more evident and widespread among a traditionally lower-income population.

About 36 percent of students attending four-year colleges and universities said they had “low” or “very low” food security in the period surveyed, meaning they aren’t skipping meals for frivolous reasons, but that they can’t always afford them -- that percentage rose to about 42 percent among two-year students. About 46 percent of community college students indicated they experienced some form of homelessness in the last year, as did 36 percent of four-year-college students.

Goldrick-Rab was traveling and unavailable for an interview. But the co-author of the report, the acting director of the HOPE Lab, Jed Richardson, said the findings should prompt institutions to act, if they have not already.

“I would encourage colleges and universities to find out more about their students,” Richardson said. “There are definitely limitations to what we can accomplish with the resources we currently have to do this work.”

Indeed, the report openly acknowledges a number of limitations of the HOPE Lab’s methodology -- the primary one being a low response rate among the students who were asked to take the survey. The HOPE Lab worked with 66 institutions -- 31 community colleges and 35 four-year universities. But only about 7 percent of the 600,000 students at the institutions -- amounting to 43,000 students -- were included in the study. Such a low sample can lead to biased responses, as students with hunger issues may be more likely to care enough to fill out the survey.

Because of this, the survey results wouldn’t necessarily be generalizable on a national or even institutional scale, the report states.

The colleges and universities that participated sent out an email blast to their entire undergraduate populations, trying to entice students to take the survey by offering 10 $100 prizes. The email included a video of Goldrick-Rab’s appearance on The Daily Show, “as evidence of the HOPE Lab’s commitment to bringing students’ voices and needs into the public sphere.”

Richardson acknowledged the survey’s limitations but said they shouldn’t stop colleges from trying to remedy issues of campus hunger and homelessness. Ideally, with the right amount of money, the HOPE Lab could have captured a much higher sample size with a degree of randomization, but such surveys nationwide could cost millions of dollars, he said.

The researchers accomplished what they could on a relative shoestring budget, Richardson said. The HOPE Lab relied mostly on the survey infrastructure it set up for its last report in March 2017, on community college students’ access to food. This was funded by a $200,000 grant from the Kresge Foundation, a Michigan philanthropic nonprofit.

Still, college leaders in interviews said these issues persist on their campuses. Goldrick-Rab’s work highlights this fact and can be used as a lobbying tool, they said.

“What has become clear to us as we do this work with some of our colleagues, and do food rescue ourselves, is that it is systemic,” said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, one of the institutions that took part in the study. “There are tendrils wrapped around things like completion and retention. What this report has done for us is sort of hung flesh on a skeletal narrative that we already know.”

Bunker Hill was one of the early adopters in offering food pantries and other programs for its students. While these problems have existed for a while, only recently have equity efforts from institutions across the country started to reveal them, Eddinger said. More minority and low-income students are pursuing higher education, she said, and they often lack the cash to pay for all of the necessities -- food, a roof over their heads and transportation.

Fewer white students, both at two- and four-year colleges, reported going hungry compared to their black and Hispanic counterparts. At community colleges, about 37 percent of white students indicated they were food insecure, compared to 47 percent of Hispanic students and 54 percent of black students. At four-year colleges, the numbers were 30 percent for white students, 42 percent for Hispanic students and 47 percent for black students.

Eddinger pointed to the report as a way to convince lawmakers to invest in higher education. She said a portion of the public, too, believes that there’s nothing wrong with students subsisting on ramen and couch surfing -- but in reality, their tribulations are far more dire.

With legislatures, particularly, investing in higher education at lower rates than in the past, these problems have been exacerbated, said Loralyn Taylor, the director of analytics for university student success initiatives at Ohio University, another study participant.

Not all state lawmakers have ignored this. New York governor Andrew M. Cuomo pushed for legislation that requires all campuses in the State University and City University of New York systems to have food pantries.

At Ohio, administrators will increase the number of campus food pantries, a common initiative on campuses now, from two to three, Taylor said. It opened its first pantry last year and launched another in fall 2017. While Taylor couldn’t provide any data on foot traffic, she said that when the pantries are stocked on Monday, all the food is gone by Friday.

Unlike some institutions, Ohio doesn’t require a formal check for students to take food -- but that’s worked fairly well for them. Some of the institution’s efforts focus on making sure students aren’t embarrassed to take advantage of services, Taylor said.

One of the pantries is located in a central part of campus, and the other is tucked away, she said, so students can choose which they prefer. Recently, the university was provided a grant of nearly $10,000 from PepsiCo to pay for seven refrigerators, seven freezers and seven commercial meat thermometers, which are used to transport and store leftover food to stock the pantries.

What surprised Taylor was that students who worked full-time indicated they were also frequently food insecure -- she said that many people believe students can still work and pay for college simultaneously, but that’s just not the case.

“I think that it’s a really positive development that so many universities, including Ohio University, are stepping up and realizing that this is a larger problem,” she said.

Previous studies of hunger on college campuses, while still stressing the magnitude of the problem, have indicated that the issue may not be as pervasive as the Wisconsin center has found.

An Urban Institute report last year found about 13 percent of community college students experienced food insecurity in 2015 -- the research organization relied on data from the U.S. Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics for that study.

Kristin Blagg, a research associate with the Urban Institute, said that while these are “difficult numbers to get at,” she would hope for a study that has a higher response rate and “digs deeper.”

“I’m glad that this report calls further attention to the issue of food and housing insecurity on campus, but I want reiterate the authors’ own caveat that a 7.3 percent response rate means that these data are not institutionally or nationally representative,” Blagg said via email. “Our national estimates indicate that about 17 percent of adults in two-year institutions were food insecure in the 2011-15 period, a rate that was significantly higher than in the general adult population, and point to the need for state and national policy-maker attention.”

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