A long-awaited report examining the extent of hunger on college campuses recommends increasing students' awareness of federal food assistance benefits so that higher ed institutions can better combat the problem.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office report, which was released Wednesday, examined 31 studies on food insecurity among students. It also determined through further analysis that about two million at-risk students who were potentially eligible for food aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, did not report receiving the benefits in 2016.
The report was the result of a 2017 request by Senate Democrats that the GAO assess hunger among college students after several surveys found that students were experiencing food insecurity.
“As the costs of college continue to climb, it’s clear that students are struggling to afford more than just tuition -- many are unable to afford textbooks, housing, transportation, childcare and even food,” U.S. senator Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, said in a statement. “This report confirms that food insecurity is a widespread issue on our nation’s campuses and that there’s a lot of work to do to ensure students are getting enough to eat. As we work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, I look forward to building on the recommendations of this report to make college truly affordable by addressing the total costs of college.”
Despite broad agreement that the problem is extensive, finding consensus on a clear or accurate estimate of the number of hungry college students has not been easy. The report notes that estimates in various studies on food insecurity ranged from 9 percent to more than 50 percent.
The report highlights one national study from the Urban Institute last year that estimates:
- 11 percent of households with a student in a four-year college experienced food insecurity
- 14 percent of households with a student in a vocational or technical program experienced food insecurity
- 17 percent of households with a student in a community college experienced food insecurity
Part of the reason for the growing rates of hunger is the increase in low-income students attending college, the report states. It is also a reflection of changing student demographics. The percentage of all undergraduates who had a household income at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line increased from 28 percent in 1996 to 39 percent in 2016, according to national data. The number of students receiving federal aid through Pell Grants has also increased from about 23 percent in 1999 to about 40 percent in 2016.
“It is time to not only think about tuition and fees but basic needs,” said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. “That’s why our students are failing out of college. Sometimes they’re choosing between food and books.”
Eddinger said people have long doubted that students were going hungry in significant numbers because of assumptions that students attending four-year colleges are financially supported by their parents. Those students are no longer in the majority, she said.
The struggles of Bunker Hill students and the college's efforts to help them have been documented in the columns of Inside Higher Ed's Wick Sloane, an administrator at the college who works on this issue.
Current college students don't fit the traditional demographic of teenagers who enrolled immediately after graduating high school and who are financially dependent on their parents. According to federal data, about half of all undergraduate students in 2016 were financially independent. About 22 percent of all undergrads that year had dependent children of their own, and 14 percent were single parents. The average college student today is 26 years old.
The GAO’s analysis focused on the 39 percent of students whose income was below 130 percent of the federal poverty line and found that most low-income students also experience additional risk factors for food insecurity. The three most common factors were being a first-generation college student, receiving SNAP benefits and being a single parent.
The GAO report also looked at low-income students with at least one risk factor for food insecurity who were eligible for SNAP and determined that 57 percent did not report participating in the federal program. Another one-quarter of 5.5 million low-income students with at least one additional risk factor for food insecurity did not meet any of the student exemptions allowed under SNAP and would likely be ineligible to participate in the program, according to the report.
Currently, there are 38 million people who receive the food assistance benefit, which will receive funding through February under the current government shutdown, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The GAO’s estimate of about two million students who are potentially eligible for SNAP seems too conservative, said Carrie Welton, a policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy.
“What they recommended is probably the bare minimum Food and Nutrition Service can do,” she said, adding that states should do a better job of clarifying the eligibility rules for SNAP. “We’ve been working with multiple states to help them clarify the rules and improve postsecondary benefits in their states.”
Welton said she supports rolling back exemptions that prevent many students from taking advantage of SNAP.
For example, full-time students can qualify for SNAP benefits if they meet one of several criteria, including participation in the Federal Work-Study program. But the GAO report notes that work-study funding is limited “especially at community colleges where there are more students at risk of food insecurity.”
Officials at nine of the 14 colleges selected for analysis in the GAO report said they viewed food insecurity as part of students’ increasing inability to meet their basic needs, which is a result of the rising costs of college and of living expenses such as housing and transportation.
But many college officials said that administrators, faculty and staff on their campuses are unaware that many students don't always have enough to eat and struggle to pay for food, according to the report. All 14 colleges said they educate their students about the resources available to them if they are facing food shortages, and eight of those institutions train or provide information to faculty about campus or community resources.
But there is still a stigma about food assistance on many of these campuses. Officials at 11 of the colleges said that stigma is a major barrier for some students. A few of the colleges have tried to eliminate the stigma by centralizing their food pantries to normalize their presence on campus; others have moved the pantries to less public areas of campus.
Students have also created their own barriers to receiving public benefits by buying in to the stereotypical and acceptable image of being a starving college student surviving on ramen noodles.
“We need to stop reinforcing this idea that starving is being a college student,” she said.
The GAO report revealed that federal programs have been limited in what they do to address food insecurity among college students.
The Food and Nutrition Service, an agency within the USDA which administers SNAP, doesn’t share pertinent information such as student eligibility requirements with college officials to help them better assist students, according to the report. Federal student aid, while available to help low-income students pay for college, does not cover the full costs of attending college.
According to federal data, 40 years ago the average Pell Grant covered about 50 percent of the average cost of in-state tuition, fees, room and board at community colleges and 39 percent at four-year colleges. But today the grant covers 37 percent of costs at community colleges and 19 percent at four-year institutions.
“The net price of college attendance has increased, and students and their families are asked to devote substantial shares of their income to college,” said Katharine Broton, an assistant professor at the University of Iowa and a faculty affiliate with the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University. “Certainly, students from low-income families are at increased risk, but this problem isn’t only limited to low-income families.”
Broton said a growing number of students from moderate-income families do not qualify for Pell Grants and don’t have the resources to pay the growing costs of college.
Although working adults who may be parents are increasingly a larger portion of the U.S. college student population, federal and state financial aid and social service policies have not been adjusted to fit their needs, Eddinger said.
“Look at K-12 and the hot lunch programs and how that has changed and brought equity to the learning environment,” she said. “If a child is hungry in elementary school and getting hot lunches and they’re the children of our students … what are the parents eating?”