Feeding Student Success
Colleges Grapple with Rising Food and Housing Insecurity
For many community college students, the barriers to academic success have little to do with mastering algebra or writing that paper for English class. Sometimes, the hurdles are much more basic: Do they have enough money to buy both books, pay tuition and put food on the table? Where will they sleep tonight?
A growing body of evidence is illuminating the fact that significant numbers of community college students — who often come from low-income families and are first-time college students — face food insecurity, defined as the limited or uncertain availability of safe and nutritious foods. Many of the same students suffer from housing insecurity and even homelessness.
A report recently released by the Community College Equity Assessment Lab at San Diego State University found that in California, home of the country’s largest community college system, one-third of two-year students experience housing insecurity, while 12 percent are exposed to food insecurity. The problem is particularly acute for African American men.
“Our report shows that our college campuses are food and housing deserts,” said J. Luke Wood, Co-Director of CCEAL and a co-author of the report. “And while many students face these concerns, we find that nearly half of Black collegiate men face homelessness or other housing instabilities and nearly a quarter deals with hunger.”
The findings come at a time when the growing cost of higher education and student debt is placing added stress on students and their families. Groceries can be a low priority when tuition and the rent are due and expensive textbooks are needed.
Researchers found that students with food and housing insecurities are significantly overrepresented in developmental education, particularly in developmental math. Students enrolled in developmental math account for 74 percent of students facing housing insecurity and 71 percent of those facing food insecurity, the study found.
“These students face added challenges and have goals of transferring or earning a degree that may seem even more distant to them than for other students,” said Nexi Delgado, a CCEAL researcher and coauthor of the report.
Among the key findings of the report were:
• Nearly a quarter (23.7 percent) of students who were exposed to housing insecurity also faced food insecurity.
• Insecurities caused high levels of stress among students with housing (at 37.9 percent) and food (48.9 percent) insecurities.
• Students with food and housing insecurities tended to be older than their peers who did not experience these challenges
• Students with food insecurity are less likely to report being on track to achieve their goals and more likely to indicate their intention to drop out of college than those who do not experience this insecurity.
The findings mirror those contained in a report released in October which surveyed 3,765 two- and four-year students on their eating habits over the course of 30 days. That report, released by the National Student Campaign Against Hunger & Homlessness, found:
• 48 percent of responding students experienced food insecurity.
• 22 percent of students experienced extreme food insecurity. Twenty-five percent of community college students qualified as having very low food security, compared to 20 percent at four-year schools.
• 44 percent were forced to cut back on the size of a meal or skip a meal entirely due to lack of money.
• Food insecurity was more prevalent among students of color. Fully 57 percent of Black or African American students reported food insecurity, compared to 40 percent of non-Hispanic white students.
• 20 percent skipped eating for an entire day due to lack of money for food.
• 15 percent said they lost weight because they couldn’t afford to eat.
Colleges around the country have been addressing food insecurity by creating campus food pantries, campus community gardens and coordinated benefits access programs.
At Middlesex Community College in Connecticut, for example, the The Magic Food Bus is a renovated party bus outfitted with shelves of staples such as pasta, cereal and peanut butter. It began operating this fall. Eligible students and staff can take home up to 20 items per month.
“If students are hungry, their ability to study or even want to come to school is going to be compromised,” said Human Services Coordinator Judith Felton. “It impacts retention rates, because students will choose to get another job in order to put food on the table rather than go to school.”
The opening of a food pantry on the campus of Bronx Community College last month was spearheaded by the college’s Single Stop student support office, part of the Single Stop U.S.A. Community College Initiative. The initiative provides students with a comprehensive range of non-academic support services. It does so by linking students with some of the $65 billion in government services and benefits that go unclaimed — such as food stamps — every year. The idea is to get students the kind of financial support that will allow then to finish their studies without worrying about being evicted or not having food on the table.
An analysis of the initiative conducted by the RAND Corporation showed Single Stop has the potential to improve college outcomes.
The analysis looked at Single Stop programs at four community colleges and found that Single Stop users were at least 3 percentage points more likely to persist into the second year of community college as compared to similar students who did not use the services.
“These findings suggest that having a onestop shop for nonacademic wraparound services and financial support can play a valuable role in promoting student success in college,” said Lindsay Daugherty, lead author of the study and a policy researcher at RAND, a nonprofit research organization.
The Single Stop U.S.A Community College Initiative is designed to improve the wellbeing of low-income communities by connecting individuals to public benefits and other institutional and community resources in an effort to address nonacademic barriers to college completion.
The initiative provides assistance to college students with applications for public benefit programs and other services that can provide support for housing, food, taxes, childcare, legal services and other essential needs all in a single location on campus.
RAND researchers evaluated the Single Stop programs at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston, City University of New York, Delgado Community College in New Orleans and Miami Dade College. Researchers examined credit accumulation and persistence in college, two key metrics for community college students.
Community colleges are struggling to improve completion rates, and they are looking to better ways to support their students and ensure success. Community college students typically face a range of nonacademic barriers to success, many of them financial.
Yet most colleges are ill-equipped to address the range of challenges that students face. Advising departments focus on academic issues. And although there are financial aid offices in every college, there are few resources devoted to accessing alternative sources of financial support, including the resources offered through public benefit programs. Programs such as Single Stop U.S.A.’s Community College Initiative aim to fill that gap.
The RAND report suggests that colleges consider how they can offer programs like Single Stop. But it also warns that more research is needed to fully understand its effects.
“This study is just a first step to understanding how programs like Single Stop may benefit community college students,” Daugherty said. “More research is needed to understand the effectiveness of programs that connect students to wraparound supports, and to determine how these programs might be effectively scaled to other colleges across the United States.”