#RealCollege survey finds housing, food insecurity persist; record number of schools participate

Results from the fifth annual #RealCollege survey indicate that food and housing insecurity remain pervasive among two- and four-year college students, even as the researchers who conducted the study note that their findings underestimate the problem given the difficulty of reaching students contending with basic needs insecurity.

Conducted by researchers from the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, the fall 2019 survey of 167,000 students from 227 two- and four-year institutions found that nearly half of respondents were housing insecure in the previous year, with 17 percent reporting homelessness in that time. Almost 40 percent reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days.

Basic needs insecurity is higher among two-year college students, the report notes, as well as those “often marginalized in higher education, including Black and Indigenous students, students identifying as nonbinary or transgender, students enrolled part-time, and students who are former foster youth or returning citizens.”

Survey grows, but data collection challenges remain

#RealCollege survey participation has grown significantly since 2015, when 10 community colleges participated. This year’s survey included 247 public two-year institutions; 138 public four-year institutions; and 23 private, not-for-profit private institutions in 44 states and Washington, D.C.

Despite this growth in participation, the survey’s data is still no substitute for comprehensive federal assessment of basic needs insecurity, an effort Hope Center researchers have advocated for since 2015. According to Hope Center Founder Sara Goldrick-Rab, last fall the federal government agreed to include questions about basic needs insecurity on the next National Postsecondary Student Aid Study. 

But perhaps the biggest obstacle to reliable data collection is reaching the students with the greatest levels of insecurity. Goldrick-Rab writes in The Washington Post that “students without adequate food or housing are far less likely to receive or complete electronic surveys given their time and financial limitations. Thus, the current estimates are likely conservative.”

Ensuring students have basic needs met strengthens institutions

Understanding and addressing basic needs insecurity is critical not only for students’ well-being but also for institutional success, the researchers assert. They note that schools addressing these issues:

  • See improved academic performance, retention, and degree completion
  • Boost enrollment by creating opportunities for formerly incarcerated adults
  • Ensure students can focus on learning, easing burdens on faculty and staff 
  • Develop relationships among schools, community organizations, and private sector companies, “bringing new relationships and resources to bear”
  • Create philanthropic giving opportunities for alumni interested in supporting emergency aid

SUPPORT: The Georgetown Scholars Program Necessity Fund >

California ‘safe car-park’ bill underscores complexity of supporting homeless students

But “most campuses, even those hardest hit by student homelessness, have failed to provide broad solutions, in part because those solutions are costly, and because there is limited research on what the best fixes actually are,” The New York Times reports.

In California, a bill seeking to require community colleges to open their parking lots overnight—to give students sleeping in their cars a secure place to rest near bathrooms and other facilities—revealed the fissures over the best way to address student homelessness.

Advocates cited “‘a bias towards action’ in the face of such a crisis—even if that action wasn’t a full-fledged solution,” the Times notes. But opponents said the bill “sent an insulting message to students about what the state considered ‘adequate housing,’” with advocates for the homeless noting that it “didn’t address the needs of students hardest hit by homelessness: the vast majority who don’t have cars they can rely on.” And the cost, estimated at nearly $70 million annually by the Community College League of California, was significant.

Despite the bill’s defeat, the debate increased public awareness of basic needs insecurity among community college students, the Times reports, “raising important questions about what social safety net services community colleges ought to offer and who should pay for them.”

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