dining table set for dinner

Food for Thought: Why Hunger Haunts So Many College Students

Faith Sandler Words of Faith

dining table set for dinner

On April 3, the Washington Post published the recent release of data documenting hunger and other basic needs unmet among college students. The piece cited several surveys, but focused on the largest to date. The full study report can be found here: Still Hungry and Homeless in College

Hunger haunting low-income students is not news to The Scholarship Foundation. Last December, this blog included an appeal for contributions for food for students describing the ways the Foundation has responded to immediate needs. The issues that create this situation are systemic; we are grateful for contributions to Food for Thought and for research affirming the experiences of our students. Such research shines a national spotlight.

This is the third large scale survey by Wisconsin’s HOPE Lab and the largest data set, including 43,000 students at 66 colleges of all types. The primary findings are summarized, verbatim, below:

  • 36% of university students were food insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey. This year’s estimate for community college students is 42%, but our larger study last year found 56%.
  • 36% of university students were housing insecure in the last year. Housing insecurity affected 51% of community college students in last year’s study, and 46% in this year’s study.
  • 9% of university students were homeless in the last year. In comparison, 12% of community college students were homeless in this year’s survey, and 14% in last year’s survey.

These data are maddening. Decades ago, this nation recognized its responsibility to provide nutrition (milk, lunch, breakfast) to school children, out of compassion and out of recognition that their learning would suffer without sustenance. The issues are no different at the collegiate level. Students who are underfunded, overindebted, and come from families without the financial resources to step in and help will make decisions to sacrifice their own well-being to stay in school.

I resent even having to write this paragraph, but it’s painfully clear that hunger and homelessness at this scale is not a result of student misspending. Yet the stereotypes in the stories of legislators and media abound. Students are notchoosing to go hungry because they have designer pizza delivered to the dorm and stockpile money for beer. The study found that ten percent of community college students and six percent of university students report going at least one day without eating within the last 30 days. That’s not a diet or financial plan; it’s necessity in a climate in which the math never adds up.

Students are going hungry because:

  • There are many and mounting hidden costs charged directly to their college account (supplemental fees, charges to stay on campus during breaks, mandatory technology costs, etc.);
  • They were admitted and enrolled with a large gap between the total cost of attendance and the aid awarded them;
  • Aid packages offered them included debt that is too high or for which they do not qualify, but that was not made clear until it was too late to change plans; and,
  • There is no margin (in financial aid or in the family resources) for unforeseen urgent expenses (such as tooth extraction, travel to a grandparent’s funeral, fees to renew DACA, etc.).

The system of higher education pricing and financial aid is outmoded and wearing terribly thin. Students are hungry because that system is built upon the assumption that there is a (middle- or upper-income) family with the capacity to step in with a few hundred or a few thousand dollars at a moment’s notice. Without that assumed safety net, students sacrifice the things over which they have some control, primarily where they eat and where they sleep. Their learning and continued enrollment is at stake.

At The Scholarship Foundation of St. Louis, we work against the factors that result in student hunger: in our awards; in our advising programs; and, in our advocacy. From our origins in 1920, we recognize a community responsibility to set the table and sustain the next generation. We’re staying at that table, and invite you to join us.

– Faith Sandler