Discrepancies in Estimates on Food Insecurity

New research finds that while food insecurity among college students is a serious problem, studies on the issue may not provide accurate estimates of its magnitude.

April 30, 2019
 

A group of researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign says more research is needed to accurately estimate the number of college students facing food insecurity and hunger, as awareness of the problem grows and lawmakers and colleges grapple with it.

The researchers analyzed multiple studies on food insecurity and found discrepancies in the way hunger is measured. Those discrepancies cast doubt on estimates of the share of college students who are reportedly hungry or food insecure, according to a paper the researchers, Cassandra J. Nikolaus, Breanna Ellison and Sharon Nickols-Richardson, published in PLOS ONE last week.

“The main reason we are concerned about accuracy with these surveys is so we can effectively implement and assess the solutions,” Nikolaus said. “These surveys are commonly used to assess need on campus, screen students for services and to evaluate the impact of interventions. If the surveys aren’t accurate, then the endeavors to address college food insecurity are potentially being compromised at each of these steps.”

Colleges and universities, often with limited financial resources, increasingly are taking on food insecurity and other basic-needs problems for their students, said Nikolaus, and it’s important to make sure the resources go to the students who are most in need. New York governor Andrew Cuomo, for example, mandated last year that all of the state's public colleges and universities have campus food pantries.

A particularly high-profile series of studies on the issue has been produced by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice. The center today released a new report on the issue that estimates 48 percent of community college students and 41 percent of four-year university students who responded to the center’s survey are food insecure. The survey was sent to nearly 1.5 million students at 123 colleges and universities. Nearly 86,000 students responded.

Other studies have estimated college food insecurity to be as low as 9 percent or more than 50 percent, Nikolaus said, with some going as high as 75 percent.

A national report from the Urban Institute last year estimated that 11 percent of households with a student who was attending a four-year college experienced food insecurity. That figure rose to 17 percent of households that included a community college student. Meanwhile, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report released in January found broad agreement that food insecurity is a problem, but a lack of consensus on a clear measurement to estimate shares of hungry students. Nevertheless, that report recommended federal agencies improve college students’ access to food-assistance programs.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University and founder of the Hope Center, said even after accounting for the full estimated margin of error in the Hope Center study, the rates still show significant numbers of students are not meeting their basic needs.

“How far off are we? Are we OK with that?” she said. “That’s what I want colleges to ask themselves. How far off do we have to be for you to decide that this isn't an issue?”

The Hope Center study also measured housing security and homelessness. It found that 16 percent of two-year students and 11 percent of four-year students are dealing with both challenges.

For the first time, the study asked students about couch surfing as an indicator for homelessness. It found 14 percent of community college students and 10 percent of four-year students reported temporarily staying with a relative or friend, or couch surfing. ​Goldrick-Rab said the center relied on identifying questions used in the federal Homeless Assistance Act, which go further than identifiers used by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the federal student aid application. Both HUD and the student aid application have a more conservative definition of homelessness, she said.

The Hope Center plans to shift away from measuring the number of students who are affected by food, housing and other basic-needs insecurities, said Goldrick-Rab, and will instead focus on solutions or programs that would help solve these problems.

The center has approached the Center for Community College Student Engagement, which distributes an annual national survey to millions of students, about asking basic-needs questions. Evelyn Waiwaiole, CCCSE’s executive director, said in an email that the center is working to secure funding to collect data on the topic.

In addition to reviewing previous research, the Illinois researchers conducted a study of more than 400 undergraduate students who answered an online survey that posted two screening questions and used 10 identifying questions used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Adult Food Security survey.

The researchers found that college students were inconsistent in their responses. Students, for example, do a poor job estimating their or their families’ income, Nikolaus said, adding that students’ income sources are often complicated by holding more than one job and factoring in scholarships, financial aid, loans and parental support.

“Even though our study is showing concerns about using the USDA measure, it is still considered the most accepted measure we have,” Ellison said.

The researchers, who study food science and nutrition, are exploring whether to instead use new measures or a longer survey.

Nikolaus said a more regulated national estimate would be valuable because most of the research on college food insecurity is based on a single institution or a select group of institutions. But she cautioned that before moving to rely on a single national survey, researchers should focus on asking which questions are appropriate and would encourage an accurate response from students.

The Illinois researchers recommend using screener questions and encourage researchers to think about the impacts of administering surveys online or in person. The Hope Center survey uses screener questions and 18 identifying statements that include the USDA measurements, said Goldrick-Rab.

"We're putting students through more and they're going through more questions because we want to get this right," Goldrick-Rab said, adding that the Hope survey goes beyond the Illinois recommendations and includes three screening questions to more accurately pinpoint students in need.

The relatively low response rates may indicate that students need more incentive to participate, such as gift cards, or they may fear the stigma of identifying as food or housing insecure, Goldrick-Rab said.

"We try to make the survey as student-friendly as possible," she said, "which means trying to appeal to them in the invitation to do it without ever mentioning hunger and homelessness."

Even the lowest estimates of food insecurity highlight a serious problem on college campuses, Nikolaus said. The Illinois researchers’ lowest estimates found that food insecurity affects one in five, or about 20 percent of students.

“Whether or not that is the right estimate -- and we don’t know what the right estimate is -- students are expressing issues with food insecurity, and continuing to work toward an accurate estimate is worthwhile,” Nikolaus said.

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