Federal study highlights food, housing insecurity among college students

New findings from the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS), which evaluates the characteristics of students in postsecondary education and how they finance their education, show that many college students are struggling to afford food and housing, Inside Higher Ed reports. This year’s report marks the first time the NPSAS has provided that insight, offering administrators and researchers the most comprehensive data to date on students’ experiences with food and housing insecurity.

The recent study, conducted every three to four years by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), includes data from 80,800 undergraduates and 19,700 graduate students enrolled any time between July 1, 2019, and June 30, 2020, NCES says in a summary of its findings. Respondents were surveyed beginning in March 2020, just as they were beginning to feel the earliest impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Additionally, NCES collected administrative data for about 196,000 undergraduate students who did not take the survey. 

Digging deeper into the data

According to an analysis of the NPSAS data from Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, 22.6% of undergraduates and 12.2% of graduate students reported experiencing low or very low food security in the last 30 days. Rates of food insecurity were higher for undergraduates at community colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and Tribal Colleges and Universities than at other public and private non-profit four-year institutions. Pell Grant recipients and undergraduates with disabilities also experienced higher rates of low or very low food security than their peers. 

Pacific Islander/Hawaiian women experienced the highest rates of food insecurity among all racial and ethnic groups, followed closely by Black women and men, which emphasizes the need for an equitable approach to addressing basic needs, the Hope Center says.

Regarding housing insecurity, the data show that 8% of undergraduate and 4.6% of graduate students reported experiencing homelessness in the previous 30 days, with the highest rates among undergraduates attending for-profit colleges and undergraduates identifying as genderqueer, gender nonconforming, or with another non-binary gender identity.

Providing better basic needs support

This new data could be useful to higher education leaders, researchers, and policymakers as they seek to better support college students facing basic needs insecurity. From 2015 to 2021, the annual #RealCollege Survey from the Hope Center included rates of homelessness and food insecurity among college students, but the data set was limited to the small number of colleges and universities that participated in those surveys.

“The really big reason this is so important is these are experiences that are affecting millions of students and have been, I firmly believe, for the whole time,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, who founded and formerly led the Hope Center, Inside Higher Ed reports. “But because the federal government didn’t collect data on them, those experiences were not considered legitimate.”

Goldrick-Rab and her colleagues at the research center previously asked the NCES to collect data on how students were experiencing basic needs insecurity so that stakeholders have a better sense of the true cost of college, including not only tuition and fees but also transportation, food, and housing.

While a number of colleges and universities have taken steps to address basic needs insecurity—though supports such as food pantries, benefits navigators, and other resources—advocates hope the report could spur increased funding for these programs and convince policymakers to make state and federal assistance programs more accessible.

The study offers a more comprehensive lens on basic needs insecurity and who’s affected, said Kevin Kruger, president and CEO of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrations in Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed reports. “[I]t’s really a national problem. There may be more depth to it at certain kinds of institutions … [but] this cuts across all institutions.”

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