Hungry and Homeless in College: Results from a National Study of Basic Needs Insecurity in Higher Education

Executive Summary

Food and housing insecurity among the nation’s community college students threatens their health and wellbeing, along with their academic achievements. Addressing these basic needs is critical to ensuring that more students not only start college, but also have the opportunity to complete degrees.

This report presents findings from the largest survey ever conducted of basic needs insecurity among college students. In 2015, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab published the research report Hungry to Learn, a study based on a survey of approximately 4,000 students at ten community colleges in seven states. This study includes more than 33,000 students at 70 community colleges in 24 states. While this is not a nationally representative sample of students or colleges, it is far greater in size and diversity than prior samples, and provides information to shed new light on critical issues warranting further research. In particular, we draw on this new survey to provide information to help practitioners and policymakers learn more about whether food and housing insecurity are more or less prevalent at certain types of community colleges or among different parts of the country. We also share a detailed profile of homeless community college students, including their financial circumstances and work behaviors, as well as forms of support that they received.

We found substantially higher rates of food insecurity among community college students than previously reported, while rates of housing insecurity and homelessness were consistent with prior estimates. Our 2015 report indicated that about half of community college students were food insecure, but this study found that two in three students are food insecure. Both surveys revealed that about half of community college students were housing insecure, and 13 to 14 percent were homeless.

Contrary to popular expectations, there appears to be very little geographic variation in hunger and homelessness among community college students. Basic needs insecurity does not seem to be restricted to community colleges in urban areas or to those with high proportions of Pell Grant recipients, and is prevalent in all regions of the country.

However, some community college students are at greater risk of food and housing insecurity than others. For example, this is the first study to consider the basic needs security of former foster youth. We found that 29 percent of former foster youth surveyed were homeless, a far higher rate than that of non-former foster youth attending community college (13 percent). Students with children were also disproportionately likely to experience food and housing insecurity.

While pursuing degrees despite enduring basic needs insecurity, community college students are nonetheless striving to ameliorate conditions of material hardship. Between 31 and 32 percent of students experiencing food or housing insecurity were both working and receiving financial aid. But in many cases, these efforts were not matched by other forms of support. For example, we estimate that 63 percent of parenting students were food insecure and almost 14 percent were homeless, but only about five percent received any child care assistance.

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