Studies have long shown that a college student’s odds of achieving financial security and a better quality of life improve when he or she earns a degree.
But what are some of the obstacles that prevent degree attainment?
At the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, we study the challenges that students from low- and moderate-income households face in attaining a college degree. Chief among these are the many hurdles created by the high price of college. Paying the price of attending college, we find, changes who attends and for how long, as well as the college experience itself – what classes students take, the grades they earn, the activities in which they engage and even with whom they interact.
Our recent research shows an alarming trend on college campuses: an increasing number of students tell us that they are struggling in college, sometimes even dropping out, because they can’t afford enough of life’s basic necessity – food.
College students are without food
Pell Grants were introduced in the 1970s as the nation’s flagship program to help low-income students cover their college costs. Back then, the grants covered nearly 75% of the cost of attending a public four-year college. Today, that percentage has dropped to 30. Add to this the fact that two-thirds of all current Pell Grant recipients grew up in families who live below 150% of the federal poverty line.
Now, let’s look at our research findings.
Beginning in 2008, we began surveying undergraduates attending public two-year and four-year colleges and universities across Wisconsin – 3,000 students in total. All of the students surveyed received the federal Pell Grant.
Our study found that 71% of the students said that they changed their food shopping or eating habits due to a lack of funds. We then asked students if they were getting enough to eat. Twenty-seven percent of students said they did not have enough money to buy food; they ate less than they felt they should; or they cut the size of their meals because of money.
When asked if they ever went without eating for an entire day because they lacked enough money for food, 7% of students at two-year colleges and 5% of students at four-year colleges said yes.
Our study focused on students attending public colleges and universities when a recession was getting under way. But our more recent surveys, as well as similar research initiatives in other parts of the country, indicate this situation is not limited to these institutions or that time period alone.
For example, Wisconsin HOPE Lab affiliate Anthony Jack from Harvard University is also uncovering hunger among undergraduates at elite institutions that purport to meet their full financial needs. His ethnographic research found students turning to off-campus food pantries and sometimes fainting from hunger. This is startling given the positive media attention paid to such schools, which often advertise “no loans” policies.
What this means for America
The ramifications of this situation are dire, and not only for the students who cannot travel the higher education path to the American Dream.
When a person makes a trade-off between food and other essential living expenses, such as paying for housing or medical expenses, it is also a sign of food insecurity – inadequate access to nutritious food.
We presented this research in our recent testimony to the National Commission on Hunger, noting also that students need not be hungry all the time in order to be food-insecure. Reducing the quality of food intake or acquiring food in a socially unacceptable way is also food insecurity.
This is not just an issue of unaffordable debt and no degree. The nation’s economy is at risk as well. Consider this:
Enough students start college to meet these goals, but not enough finish.
Studies show that only 14% of students from the bottom 20% of the income distribution completed a bachelor’s degree or higher within eight years of high school graduation, compared to 29% of those from middle socioeconomic families and 60% of students from the top 20% of the income distribution.
What can be done
In our testimony, we urged the National Commission on Hunger, as well as government and educational institutions, to align hunger policies with educational policies.
For example, students who have grown up in poverty do not suddenly become wealthier when they enroll in college, and grants fall far short of covering their full cost of attendance. Yet the free breakfast and lunch and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits that supported them during their elementary and high school years disappear or become difficult to access in college.
Instituting a National School Lunch Program at public colleges and universities – and allowing students to use both financial aid and SNAP to pay for college expenses – will likely help them complete degrees more often and faster.
SNAP, especially, should be retooled to allow more students to benefit. Fixes could include:
aligning SNAP eligibility with need-based financial aid eligibility
allowing college enrollment to count toward SNAP work requirements
removing logistical barriers to filing a SNAP application.
This is an issue that needs further investigation.
Studies of specific institutions, conducted over the last decade, indicate that college students are at a greater risk of food insecurity than the general public. However, there is no nationally representative study that exists.
Practitioners are working to respond to students’ needs, but effective policy response requires additional information.
Finally, universities and colleges themselves must do more to identify and deal with the problem of on-campus food insecurity. That includes surveying students and establishing services such as food pantries as well as other means of accessing nutritious food. These institutions need to educate students not only about the issue of hunger but also the resources that they can access.
Clearly, the true costs of college attendance are greater than anticipated.