Federal action needed to curb basic needs insecurity among college students, experts say

Millions of college students are experiencing food and housing insecurity, according to an analysis of the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study: 2020 (NPSAS:20) by Sara Goldrick-Rab, senior fellow for Education Northwest and founder of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, Diverse Issues in Higher Education reports.

The NPSAS is conducted by the Department of Education every three to four years and evaluates the characteristics of postsecondary students through student interviews, institution and government records, and other administrative sources, with special consideration of how students finance their college education. The NPSAS:20, released earlier this year, was the first time in the study’s 33-year history the government asked participants about food insecurity. Goldrick-Rab and her colleagues at the Hope Center had previously advocated for comprehensive federal studies on basic needs insecurity so that higher education leaders, legislators, and researchers could understand the scope of hunger and homelessness among college students. 

With the release of comprehensive data on students’ ability to afford basic necessities, “We can now see clearly: food insecurity and homelessness are affecting students everywhere, at all types of colleges and universities,” even when they have access to campus pantries, scholarships, and state and federal financial aid and scholarships, Goldrick-Rab wrote in an opinion article for Diverse Issues in Higher Education.

Related: Federal study highlights food, housing insecurity among college students


Understanding basic needs insecurity

Her analysis of the NPSAS indicates that 23% of undergraduate students and 12% of graduate students have experienced food insecurity, meaning that undergraduates are more likely than the overall U.S. population to struggle with hunger. ​Basic needs insecurity was also disproportionately high (between one in four and one in three) among students of color, who are most likely to face financial barriers to college completion.

Thirty-five percent of Black students, 30% of Native American students, and 25% of Latine students reported experiencing basic needs insecurity. Students attending for-profit institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) also showed high rates of basic needs insecurity, at 32% and 39%, respectively. 

During a virtual meeting last week to discuss the study, advocates and education leaders said a federal response is needed to better help students in need. Doubling the federal Pell Grant and expanding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), child care subsidies, and other public benefits are some solutions experts said would help ensure college students can meet their basic needs.

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