Sunday, March 24, 2019

By Sara Nelson

Many college students struggle with hunger and homelessness.

Over the past several decades, the price of college has risen dramatically, while financial aid has stagnated, and the incomes of most families has been flat. Today, about half of undergraduates and their families are now asked to devote a quarter or more of their total family income towards the price of college.*

Because of this, many students at community colleges, public and private universities, face basic needs insecurity, or lack of consistent access to the essential material goods that are necessary for daily life, like food and shelter.



Katharine Broton, assistant professor in Higher Education and Student Affairs, is one of the nation’s leading scholars in the study of basic needs insecurity among college students.

“Most students who experience basic needs insecurity work and receive financial aid, but still have trouble making ends meet due to the high net price of college attendance and low-wage work,” says Broton.

Many students are faced with difficult decisions between meeting essential needs and paying for college. For example, a student might have to decide between purchasing a required textbook or paying for groceries, says Broton.

Tacos and guacamole

Basic needs insecurity includes food insecurity, where students have limited or uncertain access to nutritionally adequate and safe food. Food insecurity can take many forms, including students who worry about running out of food before their next paycheck, students who have to eat inexpensive, low-nutrition foods to feel full, or students who are cutting back or skipping meals.

“We have students who report that they will go an entire day without eating due to financial or resource constraints,” says Broton. “Poor nutrition, chronic stress, and worrying about where your next meal will come from is very taxing on us cognitively, and that can impede students’ ability to focus and do their best in an academic setting.”


Sushi rolls

Approximately half of undergraduates report some form of basic needs insecurity, including housing insecurities, like having trouble affording rent or missing payments, and in its most extreme form, includes homelessness.

According to a National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, less than 15 percent of undergraduate students live in residence halls, but many still face housing insecurity when the halls close for breaks, including former foster youth or students who are unable to go home during breaks because of financial or familial issues.

“Basic needs insecurity is a systemic issue, rather than an individual problem,” says Broton. “To address it we need to think about systemic solutions, including looking at higher education and social policies at the state and national levels.”

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Read more from the 2018-2019 Alumni Magazine.