Sara Goldrick-Rab

Sara Goldrick-Rab, director of UW-Madison's Wisconsin HOPE Lab 

PHOTO BY MIKE DeVRIES/THE CAPITAL TIMES

More than half of community college students surveyed at 10 schools in seven states are at risk of hunger or homelessness, according to a new study released Friday by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“Hungry to Learn: Addressing Food & Housing Insecurity Among Undergraduates,” helps respond to lingering questions about how widespread is the challenge to college students of meeting basic needs, Sara Goldrick-Rab, founding director of the HOPE Lab and co-author of the study, said Friday.

“Such high rates of food and housing insecurity among hard-working college students indicate that the nation faces a serious crisis,” Goldrick-Rab wrote in an Op-Ed piece published Friday in the New York Times. “Much of the conversation in Washington concerning college costs — whether it’s about simplifying the financial aid application or refinancing student loans — seems almost trivial in comparison with the problems these students face.”

This first national testing of food and housing insecurity — students at Moraine Park Technical College in Wisconsin were among the total 4,300 surveyed — had a relatively low response rate of 9 percent. But Goldrick-Rab said the demographic characteristics of respondents correlated closely to community college students in general.

Because the survey was conducted by email and low-income students can have unreliable access to computers, Goldrick-Rab said she did not expect to see such high rates of food and housing challenges.

“If the rates are higher than this, I’m really worried,” she said.

More than half of all respondents, 52 percent, were at least marginally food insecure over the past 30 days, the survey found. “Food insecurity” was determined through six questions on access to meals used by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Prevalence of Food Insecurity, last 30 days

The food that I bought just didn’t last and I didn’t have money to get more.39%
I couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals.43%
Any number of days: Did you ever cut the size of your meals or skip meals because there wasn't enough money for food?28%
Three or more days: Did you ever cut the size of your meals or skip meals because there wasn’t enough money for food?22%
Did you ever eat less than you felt you should becaue there wasn't enough money for food?26%
Were you ever hungry but didn’t eat because there wasn’t enough money or food?22%
Source: "Hungry to Learn"

And 52 percent of respondents said over the past year they experienced at least one form of housing insecurity, like having difficulty paying rent or utilities. Thirteen percent said they had one or more experiences associated with homelessness, like being “thrown out” or staying in shelter.

Prevalence of Housing Insecurity and Homelessness, Past Year

Housing Insecurity 
Any of the below items 52%
1. Difficulty paying rent 22%
2. Didn't pay full amount of rent 18%
3. Didn't pay full amount of utilities 22%
4. Moved 2 or more times per year 12%
5. Doubled up 11%
6. Moved in with other people due financial problems 14%
Homelessness 
Any of the below items 13%
1. Thrown out of home 5%
2. Evicted from home 2%
3. Stayed in shelter 1%
4. Stayed in abandoned building 3%
5. Didn't know where you'd sleep at night 1%
6. Didn't have a home 1%
Source: "Hungry to Learn"

Goldrick-Rab and her co-authors at UW-Madison and University of Michigan recommend 11 changes in federal and state eligibility policies to make programs like food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and housing assistance available to college students.

Other changes, like making the SNAP EBT card useable at campus food vendors, are administrative steps that can be taken by the schools themselves.

“That is one of the barriers that I didn’t understand, but students who actually experience it know well,” Goldrick-Rab said.

Barriers to assistance, as well as the insufficiency of financial aid and other programs fully meeting basic needs, underlay the challenges that low-income students face in staying in college, she said.

“Any program that helps students stay in school has potentially really good return on investment,” Goldrick-Rab said. “You can view paying for services to put EBT on campus as college retention program. You don’t have to view it as a social service program.”

She is hoping that viewing the recommended policy changes through that lens might put them on a higher priority.

“From President Obama on down, our political leaders are urging people to do the right thing and stay in college. Students are trying — so hard that they sometimes go hungry to learn,” Goldrick-Rab wrote in the New York Times. “A college education is a great tool for overcoming poverty, but students have to be able to escape the conditions of poverty long enough to finish their degrees or we’re wasting their time.”

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