While higher education has historically been promoted as a "great equalizer," new research offers the latest evidence that poverty and economic inequality continue to inhibit the realization of that promise.
A study by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and Temple University found that about 36 percent of students struggle with food insecurity, or inadequate access to nutritious food, while more than a third also face housing insecurity—defined as the inability to pay rent or utilities or the need to move frequently.
The researchers documented the experiences of 43,000 college students at more than 60 public and private universities as well as community colleges—the largest-ever national survey assessing whether the basic needs of students are being met.
"The data show that basic needs insecurities disproportionately affect marginalized students...However, the level of academic effort—in and outside the classroom—is the same regardless of whether or not students are dealing with food and housing insecurity." —Wisconsin HOPE Lab and Temple UniversityIn addition to the large percentage of students who were found to lack adequate housing and food, about nine percent of students reported homelessness in the 30 days leading up to the survey. Community college students struggled more than those at universities and private colleges, with 46 percent of students at two-year institutions reporting that they couldn't afford balanced meals, 37 percent saying their food supplies ran out before they could afford to buy more, and nine percent saying they had involuntarily gone a whole day without eating.
"The data show that basic needs insecurities disproportionately affect marginalized students," reads the study. "...However, the level of academic effort—in and outside the classroom—is the same regardless of whether or not students are dealing with food and housing insecurity. It is therefore critically important to match their commitments with supports."
The report comes as students at Howard University are in their sixth straight day of protests which erupted last week in response to alleged corruption in the school's financial aid department, but has also focused on housing insecurity in the student body amid "unsubstantiated tuition hikes" and a lack of transparency regarding administrators' salaries.
In its list of demands, the protesters denounced the university for leasing three dormitories to real estate developers, resulting in inadequate on-campus housing for students, and noted, "Since 2008, the cost of tuition has nearly doubled while the median household income of African-American households has decreased," potentially adding to financial difficulties for students.
Howard students are far from alone, as average room and board fees for undergraduate students climbed to nearly $10,000 in the 2013-2014 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics—50 percent higher than what families were asked to pay just 20 years ago.
"There has been an uptick in low-income students on campus, but there hasn't been a corresponding change in university policy to welcome and prepare for these students," Anthony Abraham Jack, an assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, told the Washington Post.
To respond to growing needs on college campuses, more universities are establishing food banks for students. The College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) has grown from 12 members in 2012 to 591 members as of February 2018, according to Wisconsin HOPE Lab.
"Better understanding how students experience and cope with basic needs security is essential for designing effective interventions and policies," reads the study. "Researchers have begun to document some of these supports, including case studies of specific programs and comparisons of varying responses across institutions. To ensure that students are receiving the help they need, researchers now must focus on rigorously evaluating existing interventions."