Skip to main content

College Students Are Going Hungry

A new report finds that around half of all college students fear running out of food before having the money to buy more.

School cafeteria workers.

With so much emphasis on wealthy parents spending millions of dollars to buy their kids into elite schools, it's easy to overlook the fact that a significant number of today's students are concerned about something far more essential than getting into Harvard and Yale universities: access to food and housing.

Information about the basic needs insecurities of college students has long been relatively scarce, primarily because it's a problem that has no name. We see colleges as crucibles of privilege and opportunity, places we go to soar, not starve.

But a new study sheds a light on a largely hidden problem. Drawing on surveys conducted with over 167,000 students from 101 community colleges and 68 four-year colleges and universities, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice—a non-profit research organization focused on higher education and social policies—has documented rates of basic needs insecurity on campuses across 20 states. Sara Goldrick-Rab, the Hope Center's founder and the study's lead author, says that, while the data might not be nationally representative, "there are numbers now."

And they are eye opening.

Food is the most pervasive concern. In the 30 days preceding the survey, 48 percent of responding students claimed to have experienced food insecurity, defined in the report as "the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food, or the ability to acquire such food in a socially acceptable manner." Just over 50 percent of two-year college students and 44 percent of four-year college students "worried whether my food would run out before I got more money to buy more." Around 30 percent for each group "was hungry but did not eat because there was not enough money for food."

The Hope Center report highlights equally disturbing inadequacies regarding access to housing. Twenty-eight percent of two-year college students were unable to pay the full amount of rent or mortgage, 25 percent of four-year college students "had a rent or mortgage increase that made it difficult to pay," and almost 30 percent of two-year students were unable to pay the full amount for utilities. Twenty percent "had an account default or go into collections."

Homelessness also proved to be a problem for many undergraduates. The report notes that "homelessness affects 18 percent of survey respondents at two-year institutions and 14 percent at four-year institutions." Fourteen percent of two-year and 10 percent of four-year college students reported having to stay with a relative or friend, or to couch surf due a lack of a permanent place to live. Others noted living outdoors, at a shelter, and in a camper.

Goldrick-Rab is quick to note the demographic disparities of these basic needs insecurities. Transgender, gay and lesbian, and African-American students suffer notably higher rates of insecurity than heterosexual white men and women. The rate of food insecurity among students identifying as black or African American is 19 percentage points higher than those who are white, and 8 percent higher than those responding as Hispanic or Latinx. Goldrick-Rab explains that, with trans students, "they are often estranged from their parents," warning against "the assumption that everyone has parents giving them money."

A recent report put out by The Pell Institute, "Indicators of Higher Education Equity in the United States," reiterates the seriousness and persistence of these disparities. It notes how President Harry Truman's 1947 Commission on Higher Education observed that "the ladder of educational opportunity rises high at the doors of some youth and scarcely rises at the doors of others," before reporting that "the data in the 2019 Indicators show persisting inequality in higher education opportunity based on family income, race/ethnicity, parent education, and geographic location."

Ultimately, according to Goldrick-Rab, the federal government is best positioned to confront these various disparities. "These questions," she says, "have never been on the table—because Congress needs data." As information becomes more available—due in part to the efforts of The Hope Center—there is optimism that significant legislative reform will come through during the next reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (which could come up for reauthorization within the year). Currently, the act, which deals extensively with financial aid issues, does nothing to address food and housing security per se for today's college students.

Goldrick-Rab says that "there are a number of ways [Congress] could amend the act to provide support to colleges with the mandate that they address the affordability of food on campus." She envisions, for example, colleges hiring and training an administration official to teach students how to connect to SNAP benefits. After a pause, she laughs and says, "It's not radical stuff, right?"