OF COLLEGE (UN)AFFORDABILITY
Food and Housing Insecurity
in Higher Education
By Katharine Broton and
Katharine Broton (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a doctoral
candidate in the Department of Sociology and a member of
the Wisconsin HOPE Lab at the University of Wisconsin–
Madison. She is interested in educational inequalities, with
a focus on higher education. Her current research examines
experiences of poverty among college students.
Sara Goldrick-Rab (email@example.com) is a professor
of educational policy studies and sociology at the University
of Wisconsin–Madison and founding director of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a translational research laboratory aimed at
finding effective ways to make college more affordable.
Change • January/February 2016
• Some students from low-income families are unable to pay their
college costs without experiencing material hardship. What they
do to make ends meet (e.g., go hungry and homeless) inhibits
learning and discourages persistence.
Strategic college leaders investigate the needs of their students
and draw on the strengths of their institutions and those of their
communities to meet those challenges: for example, by changing
school policies and financial due dates, creating short-term
interest-free loan programs at the beginning of the school year,
hiring counselors with social-work backgrounds, working with
local food banks and housing authorities, and offering free taxpreparation services.
Institutions can also collaborate with non-profit organizations
such as the College and University Food Bank Alliance, Single
Stop, and the Center for Working Families to help students access
existing social-safety-net resources.
Changes to federal and state policies that increase access to food
stamps or extend the school lunch program to college students
could better support students with financial need.
ost Americans agree that the current high
price of college attendance renders it unaffordable, even for middle-class families
with students enrolled in the public sector. Costs have risen and subsidies have
declined, while real wages for earners outside of the top five
percent have fallen.
Despite massive public investments in financial aid, students from families earning an average of just $20,000 a
year are now required to pay at least $8,000 for one year of
community college and more than $12,000 a year at a public
university (Goldrick-Rab & Kendall, 2014). That “net price”
is what these students face after all grants (including the
Pell and state and institutional grants) are subtracted from
the cost of attending college. This price has gone up substantially over time, particularly since the Great Recession,
and it is often impossible to cover entirely with federal loans
What happens when economically insecure people enroll
in college, partly enticed by offers of financial aid, and
then face prices that are beyond their reach? Since 2008,
researchers at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab have posed this
question in studies conducted in Wisconsin and across the
nation. The answer, we have learned, is that even though they
often work, a growing number of low-income students also
experience food and housing insecurity.
These material hardships affect learning and the effort
that can be devoted to school. They compromise students’
chances for degree completion and affect the institutions in
which the students enroll (Broton, Frank, & Goldrick-Rab,
2014; Goldrick-Rab, 2016). While higher education has
focused on helping the poor attend college—succeeding in
placing almost 10 million Pell Grant recipients into colleges
and universities—it has inadequately addressed the conditions of poverty confronting students as they pursue degrees.
When people lack a minimal level of basic goods such as
food and shelter, they are said to confront “material hardship.” Available data suggest that the incidence of food
and housing insecurity is now greater among college students than it is in the general population (Broton, Frank, &
Goldrick-Rab, 2014). Although prevalence rates vary across
colleges, even students attending Ivy League universities
with full financial-aid packages report going without food
and struggling with hunger (Jack, 2015).
A New York University student reports,
I live on $2.00 to $5.00 dollars a day. That means two
meals a day, and incredibly unhealthy food. I’m hungry
all the time. Being so hungry while you’re trying to
work two jobs to pay your rent and still keep up with
your coursework is practically impossible—and more
common than you would ever think at a university like
this. (NYU Faculty, 2015)
Approximately half of all Pell Grant recipients are from
families living below the official poverty line. In addition,
evidence from a study by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab indicates
that one in four Pell grantees grew up in families where at
least sometimes there was not enough food to eat at home
Even students attending Ivy League
universities with full financial-aid
packages report going without
food and struggling with hunger.
(Goldrick-Rab, 2016). That study followed 3,000 students
from low-income families who enrolled in a public two- or
four-year college or university in the state of Wisconsin
shortly after graduating from high school (see www.wihopelab.com for details).
When we surveyed students during their first semester of
college, nearly 90 percent indicated that they were upset or
worried about not having enough money to pay for the things
they needed in order to attend college; 78 percent stated that
they were having difficulty paying their bills.
To make ends meet, students:
• cut back on social activities (80 percent)
• changed their food shopping or eating habits (71 percent)
• cut back or stopped driving (48 percent)
• borrowed money or used credit cards more (39 percent)
• increased the amount of time spent working (38 percent)
• postponed medical or dental care (24 percent)
• put off paying bills (24 percent)
• reduced utility usage (23 percent)
• went without a computer (19 percent)
• did not buy all required books or supplies (15 percent)
When we followed up with these same students a year
later, 27 percent reported that in the past month, they did
not have enough money to buy food, ate less than they felt
they should, or cut the size of their meals. Seven percent had
recently gone without eating for an entire day (GoldrickRab, 2016).
Unsurprisingly, students who reported that they had grown
up in food-insecure households were more likely to report
experiences of hunger in college than were other Pell grantees (Mai, 2014).
The results of our study are not unique. An earlier survey at the University of Hawaii, for example, reported that
21 percent of students had reduced their food intake due to
resource limitations in the prior year. An additional 24 percent reported anxiety about their food supply due to a lack of
money (Chaparro, Zaghloul, Holck, & Dobbs, 2009).
A recent survey of more than 4,000 undergraduates at
10 community colleges across seven states indicates that
approximately half of students are food insecure, including 20 percent who had gone hungry in the last month
(Goldrick-Rab, Broton, & Eisenberg, 2015).
Across these studies, the risk of food insecurity is
unevenly distributed. At the City University of New York, for
instance, 39 percent of students had experienced food insecurity in the prior year, but those at an increased risk include
(Freudenberg et al., 2011):
Change • January/February 2016
• students with fair or poor health (56 percent incidence
• those with incomes under $20,000 (55 percent)
• Hispanic students (48 percent)
• Black students (42 percent)
• financially independent students (46 percent)
• students who work 20 or more hours per week
Young adults are especially at risk for housing insecurity
because they often lack a rental history, enough savings for
a security deposit, or someone who can act as a guarantor
(Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University,
2011; Dworsky et al,. 2012; Wilder Research, 2008).
According to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid
(FAFSA), 58,000 college students are homeless, although
this is certainly an underestimate due to the reporting
requirements and concerns about stigma (NAEHCY, 2014).
In our Wisconsin HOPE Lab study, one-quarter of twoyear college students indicated that they were unable to pay
utility bills, and an additional 24 percent couldn’t pay rent
within the past year. Four-year college students were half as
likely to report trouble paying rent and utilities.
Results from a survey of undergraduates attending 10
community colleges indicates that half of students are housing insecure, including 13 percent who were homeless in
the past year (Goldrick-Rab, Broton, & Eisenberg, 2015).
Similarly, 42 percent of students at the City University of
New York are housing insecure (Tsui et al., 2011). In both
studies, students who experienced food insecurity were at
greater risk of housing insecurity, and vice versa.
Hurting Chances of College Completion
Material hardship seems to inhibit educational attainment. While there have not been studies (yet) measuring the
impact of food and housing insecurity on college attainment,
research from K-12 education and descriptive work in higher
education is clear.
For example, one study found that college students who
report struggling to get enough food to eat are 22 percent
less likely to earn a 3.5–4.0 GPA rather than a 2.0–2.49
GPA, after controlling for other background factors (Maroto,
Snelling, & Linck, 2015). Madeline Pumariega, now chancellor of the Florida University System, explained why Miami
Dade College had taken steps to alleviate food insecurity in
an interview we did when she was president of the college’s
Wolfson campus (Goldrick-Rab, Broton, and Gates, 2013):
When a student is hungry, he does not feel safe, and
it is hard to help him synthesize material. We have to
meet students’ basic needs in order for them to fully
concentrate on assimilating the information in a class in
a way that they can apply it, learn, and take it forward.
Here, Pumariega was reflecting knowledge gained by
practitioners around the country who work directly with
One in four CUNY students—
food and housing insecure.
It can be very difficult to focus on school when you are
unsure where you will sleep at night. In 2008, for example, we met “Anne,” a student in the Wisconsin Scholars
Longitudinal Study. Anne went to college in Milwaukee to
obtain the skills to find a good job and a better life for herself and her mother. She had grown up in public housing
as her mother cycled on and off assistance from the state,
struggling to hold a job while coping with lupus, a chronic
Anne had attended one of the city’s better high schools,
where she completed an International Baccalaureate program, before enrolling in the public four-year college. She
was adjusting well to college life. Then the manager of
the apartment building where she lived with her mother
informed her that, by enrolling in school full-time, she had
violated the terms of the family’s subsidized housing.
Anne did not know what policy dictated this situation but
thought it might have to do with perceptions of undergraduate behavior. In fact, Anne may have run up against her local
public housing authority’s definition of eligibility, which deprioritized full-time students.
If the idea of this policy was to prevent people from taking
advantage of public housing, it made little sense in Anne’s
case. She was not a student seeking a new, inexpensive
place to live for a few years but rather a long-term resident
who had lived in the building for years and who had very
few assets of her own—and little ability to make significant
money without a college degree.
Anne could see no recourse, so she switched to taking
classes part-time. Her college academic advisor issued a letter for her to give to her landlord, proving she had done this.
Yet it seems that no one at Anne’s school, including her advisor or financial-aid counselor, called the housing authority in
an effort to clarify the situation or intervene.
Such a call may have allowed Anne to maintain full-time
status but, as a part-time student, Anne received much less
grant aid and was concerned about the extra time it would
take to earn a degree. She spoke with her advisor about her
concerns on several occasions; she did not know whom else
to turn to. There did not seem to be any support at her college for this type of problem.
Anne had few options. If she worked, her income could
disqualify her—and her mother—from receiving the housing
subsidy, which they needed to make ends meet.
A year later, Anne’s mom was hospitalized, and Anne was
struggling to juggle all of her responsibilities. Around this
same time, the apartment manager reappeared, telling her
that she could now enroll full-time. Anne did not trust this
information and did not go through with the paperwork and
hassle to switch again.
Anne’s feelings of confusion and distrust were neither
uncommon nor unusual, but they had significant implications. For each additional semester she stayed in school, the
costs mounted and the odds of completing a degree diminished.
The last time we saw Anne was at the start of her third
year of college. She was trying to work a little but not too
much, since she needed money to pay the bills but did not
want to make too much and be disqualified from her housing or her financial aid. She seemed on track with school.
Subsequent administrative records indicate that she remained
continuously enrolled until spring 2014. But then she left,
without a degree in hand.
We have met with administrators, faculty, and staff in colleges across the nation who are working to directly support
students who are struggling to meet their basic needs.
Our research suggests that the most strategic college leaders take a local approach. They investigate the specific needs
of their students and draw on the strengths of the college and
community to help meet those challenges.
Students and staff can readily point to policies that create
bottlenecks and break points for food- and housing-insecure
people. For example, the start of the school year can be
especially stressful for students of limited financial means.
Full tuition and fees are typically due at the same time that
students need to buy school supplies and possibly put down
a security deposit for housing accommodations.
A lack of savings or a delay in financial-aid disbursement means that students are unable to make ends meet. The
repercussions, such as being dropped from class rosters or
losing an apartment, can be devastating (Rivera, 2015).
Several colleges have adapted their policies or put lowcost programs in place to address these concerns. For
instance, one college implemented an interest-free shortterm loan program for students who expect to receive financial aid but who have a delayed payment, so that the late
timing of the aid does not derail the students’ educational
plans. The financial-aid office administers the program to
streamline the process and ensure that the program poses a
low financial risk to the college.
Similarly, another college implemented an interest-free
book-loan program, regardless of financial-aid status.
Officials at this college recognized that many students
work their way through school and do not have the lump
sum needed at the beginning of the term but could manage
smaller monthly payments.
Other schools we visited chose to change the rules regarding due dates or the consequences of late payment. For
example, one college shifted the due date for fees by several
The start of the school year can be
especially stressful for students of
limited financial means.
weeks to allow students more time to work and earn money
in order to make the payment. Another institution pushed
back the date on which a student is dropped from class rosters for non-payment.
Some colleges have hired individuals with backgrounds in
social work or who have prior work experiences with individuals whose basic needs are not being met to fill critical
student-service positions on campus.
In these examples, college leaders and their teams
reviewed and adapted policies or procedures to better serve
students from low-income and poor families while maintaining the financial health and integrity of their institutions.
College leaders also turn to their communities to create
partnerships that support poor college students. One of the
more common arrangements is for a local food bank or pantry to serve students on campus. According to the College
and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), some pantries
operate out of a closet one day a week, while others supply
upwards of 50,000 pounds of food per year, with regular
distributions. One college we visited coordinates with the
college’s culinary arts program to provide healthy-cooking
demonstrations in partnership with the food bank.
Students emphasize the importance of co-locating community services, such as a food bank, on campus. This
reduces not only time and transportation costs but the stigma
associated with accessing these supports. Students report an
increased sense of belonging and integration with the college when officials advertise poverty-alleviation supports as
just another student support service—along with academic
advising, tutoring, or free flu shots—rather than as a supplemental service for marginalized students.
In addition to food pantries, some colleges work with
their school cafeterias and food vendors to support students
who are food insecure. At some colleges, this means that the
administration purchases discounts meal vouchers, which
it then distributes to students via different programs or services.
In other cases, student organizations work with food
vendors to save surplus edible food that would otherwise
be thrown out each night. Although these food-rescue programs often look beyond the local college when deciding
where to donate recovered food, more are realizing that the
leftover food could be distributed to college students in need
(Environmental Protection Agency, 2014).
Finally, some students and college officials are encouraging on-campus food vendors to accept food stamps or
Change • January/February 2016
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits
(Song, 2015). Again, the students we talked with described
feelings of alienation when the college cafeteria or food vendor refused to accept their food stamps.
Many of the colleges we visited provide free on-campus
tax-preparation services to students (this is especially common at institutions utilizing the services of Single Stop).
In comparison to food and shelter, this may not seem like
a particularly pressing need for college students. But free
tax-preparation services save students hundreds of dollars
that many spend on professional filing fees. They also ensure
that students receive all eligible higher education credits and
exemptions for low-income families (e.g., Earned Income
And these services encourage early filing of the FAFSA,
because completed tax documents are a required part of the
application. Colleges that offer tax and FAFSA preparation services in tandem promote timely completion of the
FAFSA. This increases the odds that eligible low-income
students will receive all of their grant aid, as states often run
out of need-based financial aid before all eligible students
receive support (e.g., Cohen, 2012).
Several colleges we visited collaborate with the Volunteer
Income Tax Assistance program. This is an Internal R ...
Purchase answer to see full