Recent national conversations around getting a college degree have focused on the decreasing numbers of students enrolling in college and the ever-increasing levels of debt with which students are graduating. There is less discussion of how college students are making it through college and what support they are receiving.
When thinking of who experiences hunger and worries about homelessness, college students are likely not who comes to mind. As a college professor, this issue has become more evident since I first taught a college course over a decade ago. When asked about their winter break plans, students share their need to work, their hopes of catching up on elusive sleep, and their worries about not being able to afford next semester.
It is the student who came up after class to apologize to me for falling asleep during lecture; he came to campus right after his night shift ended, and the quick nap in his car before our morning class wasn’t enough. It is the overheard conversation between students about who had extra meal swipes to our dining hall; one student spoke about hoarding free condiment packets to eat with his last Ramen cup.
My students’ experiences are not unique. College students in the United States often work much more than 15 hours a week and sometimes multiple jobs at a time. They experience food and housing insecurity at some point during college. Of students surveyed in 2019, 39% experienced food insecurity, 46% experienced housing insecurity, and 17% experienced homelessness. The pandemic has only heightened these needs with nearly 3 in 5 surveyed students experiencing basic needs insecurity. Unfortunately, financial stressors affect learning and performance. It is harder to focus and get good grades, leading to lower retention rates. College students’ financial worries are not just about future student loan debt; they are trying to graduate while also working too much, hungry, and worried about eviction now.
Collectively, institutions of higher education are falling short of supporting students with basic needs insecurity. Data from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice show a consistent trend since 2015 of significant basic needs insecurity experienced by college students. Pair this with the low graduation rates of lower-income college students across the last several decades, our institutions are not currently set up to help these students through to graduation. A growing number of college campuses now house food pantries, but it is increasingly clear that this is not sufficient.
What more can universities do? Although there is no one, clear solution, there are multiple promising approaches. Universities can acknowledge these financial challenges and share care and concern for students experiencing them. Pointing students to available resources in non-stigmatizing ways and affirming their ability and motivations to be successful in college are helpful ways to start conversations on campus.
Institutions can also systematically assess the extent to which their students are experiencing basic needs insecurity. Campus leaders can learn from their own campus experts (including students) about who their universities serve and what their needs are.
Faculty are key partners in supporting students with basic needs insecurity as they often have the most consistent and extensive interactions with their students. Providing instructors with the professional development, time, and resources to develop or revise courses with access for all students in mind can be consequential. Efforts to utilize open-access technology and texts and planning office hours and review sessions to allow those who work or have caregiving responsibilities to still benefit are just a few examples.
The greatest impact is likely to come from institutional-level policies and practices and prioritizing students’ basic needs in budgetary considerations. Students who are struggling to pay rent and afford groceries find it jarring to hear some universities experiencing endowment boosts and receiving large donations. As federal funds from pandemic aid are depleted, universities need to focus efforts and funds on filling the gaps that the pandemic has made much more apparent. How can university leaders advocate for expanding SNAP and other benefits to their students? What need-based scholarships, work-study positions, and emergency grants could be better supported? What temporary solutions for students’ basic needs insecurity can be institutionalized and scaled?
For the college students of today to fully engage and succeed in college, our universities need to be built to support the students we invite into our ranks.
About the Author
Kathryn Boucher, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Indianapolis. She is a Lead Scholar on the Student Experience Project through the College Transition Collaborative and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.