Close to Home: New study quantifies hunger and homelessness in higher education


The college experience typically conjures images of carefree young adults straddling the line between adolescence and adulthood by balancing going to class and hitting the books with parties, hanging out with friends and drinking lots of… caffeine (and perhaps some other beverages). However, for students living with food insecurity or homelessness, enjoying this time in their lives can be difficult.

A recent survey from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that 36 percent of university students were food insecure in the 30 days leading up to the study. The number for community college students was even more dire at 42 percent.

The report, which surveyed 43,000 students at 66 colleges and universities in 20 states and Washington, D.C., also found that homelessness affected 9 percent of university students and 12 percent of community college students in the past year.

The HOPE Lab surveys are some of the first of their kind in the country that attempt to quantify the problems homelessness and hunger in the country’s high-education institutions.

Those problems exist on a local level for college students in Arizona, as well, though the numbers here are slightly below the national and regional figures.

Similar numbers do not exist for ASU, because there is not a HOPE Lab study associated with the university. “We have offered any college the opportunity to participate,” says Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University and founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. “We offered (ASU) the chance to do the survey.”

“I would hope Michael Crow would want to do this,” she adds. “The most important part is not the national numbers, but dealing with what is on your campus.”

The Wisconsin HOPE Lab worked with the Maricopa County Community College District in the fall of 2016 to determine the scope of the problem for students in Maricopa County.

That survey includes responses from 2,665 students attending Maricopa County Community College schools.

It found that food insecurity is slightly less prevalent in the MCCC survey than similar surveys conducted nationally and in the western region.

The problem is still significant, though.

The food insecurity question included questions from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Six-item Food Security Survey Module to determine how many students in the past 30 days could not afford balanced meals, could not afford enough food and/or skipped meals because of money issues.

The survey found that 64 percent of MCCCD students suffered from marginal to very low food security. Thirty-one percent of the students surveyed suffered from very low food security, meaning they answered yes to at least five of the USDA questions.

Homelessness is another issue facing community college students in Maricopa County, with 12 percent of students experiencing homelessness in the 12 months prior to the survey. This could mean they were thrown out or evicted from a home, stayed in a shelter, lived in a non-housing structure like a car or abandoned building, or did not know where they were going to sleep, even for one night.

That 12 percent figure is below the figure for community college students in the western region, which is 17 percent, and right in line with the most recent national survey results.

While 12 percent may seem like a low figure, it extrapolates out to approximately 24,000 of the estimated 200,000 students that attended Maricopa County Community Colleges in 2015-2016.

These problems are also worse for some minority groups. The MCCCD survey found that African American and American Indian students are more likely to be food insecure and/or suffer from homelessness than other students.

There is not one specific cause to these problems on college campuses. Rather, a confluence of pressures have exacerbated the issues in recent years.

“There are several things going on,” Goldrick-Rab says. “One is college is expensive, more so than in past. That is not the main issue, though. It is not just tuition.”

She also noted that cost of living and housing is on the rise and many students erroneously think that financial aid and, in some cases, a part-time job, will cover those costs.

“Work is hard to find,” Goldrick-Rab says. “Most people in this country work their way through college and minimum wage doesn’t go as far as it used to.”

Housing costs are also an issue as high-end developments pop up around universities and colleges.

Real estate is certainly contributing to it,” Goldrick-Rab says. “Most students live off campus and there are those who have figured out there is money to be made.”

This can be seen at ASU’s Tempe Campus, which is adjacent to several new market-rate luxury apartment projects like The Local, which is currently under construction at University Drive and Ash Avenue.

There are also complications at a policy level. Goldrick-Rab noted that college students do not qualify for all forms of housing assistance, such as the low-income tax credit.

“It can actually be harder to get subsidized housing as a college student than when you’re not in college,” she says.

To combat these issues, Goldrick-Rab’s group is tackling the problems from all angles.

The first step is conducting research to shed light on the problem, which is why the group is conducting nationwide, regional and localized surveys. They are also working with policy makers to create better legislation to protect students.

They are also working with colleges and nonprofits to create new services and programs to help students, such as emergency housing provided by schools.

Locally, there are some resources already available to students in Arizona.

ASU’s Student Advocacy and Assistance office is a resource for students that connects them with university programs and community partners that can help them overcome barriers to their education.

Maricopa County Community Colleges has a similar resource within the Office of Student Affairs that can help students with a range of issues, including housing assistance.

The community college district also has Foster Youth Student Success Initiative that provides support and services to students aging out of the foster care system.




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