Tuition costs are sky-high. According to the College Board, the average yearly cost of attending a two-year community college in 2016 was $11,580. For a public four-year university, the cost was $20,090 per year and the private university sticker price was $45,370. These costs are alarming enough, but what’s even more shocking is that increasing numbers of low-income students try to save money by sacrificing meals. Founded in 2013, the College and University Food Bank Alliance had roughly 600 member schools in mid-January; two years ago, the group had less than 200.
In December, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a Madison-based organization that studies ways to produce more equitable outcomes in postsecondary education, published “Going Without: An Exploration of Food and Housing Insecurity Among Undergraduates.” The report found that at least 50 percent of two- and four-year college students struggle with food insecurity.
College students are at a higher risk for food insecurity than the general population. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that just 12.3 percent of households were food insecure, which puts college students well above the national average. In a survey conducted by researchers from Southern Illinois University, 35 percent of students at four public universities reported low or very low food security, while another 23 percent reported marginal food insecurity. Only 42 percent of students were considered food secure.
Food insecurity among community college students is especially alarming: The HOPE Lab found that 20 percent of students had very low food security, meaning they reduced their food intake, sometimes for days at a time, to save money.
Unlike public elementary and secondary schools, which provide low-income students with free and reduced lunches, free transportation, and free (although limited) health screenings, college students often fend for themselves because there are few federal or state assistance programs for nutrition or other necessities “even though,” as HOPE lab researchers concluded in a 2014 report, “policymakers and educators say that college should be viewed as a mere extension of high school, a necessity for a stable life and strong national economy.”
Earlier this month, Democratic New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed opening a food pantry at every state college or coming up with another “stigma-free” way students can gain access to food. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a HOPE Lab researcher, told CNN that while this move is a “big deal,” it’s still more like a “Band-Aid” than a solution.
Postsecondary institutions should help make food and other basic necessities available to low-income students by revamping college tuition assistance programs and providing additional financial resources such as discounted or free meal plans. Without decisive action, food insecurity will continue to be a harsh fact of life on America’s college campuses.