Going Deeper on College Student Food Insecurity

Postsecondary & Workforce

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This guest post comes from Chris Fernandez, research analyst at Trellis Research, which will be participating in a session, titled “Basic Needs as Prerequisites to Learning: Food and Financial Instability Facing Postsecondary Students,” at the 2018 National Forum on Education Policy.

About half of postsecondary students meet the USDA’s definition for low or very low food security, which means they have limited or uncertain access to adequate food. States are well-positioned to counter food insecurity, and researchers at Trellis are working to identify and drive appropriate interventions.

From January to September 2017, Trellis interviewed 72 postsecondary students from 11 two- and four-year colleges, totaling 499 interviews. Students answered questions about their experiences meeting basic needs (including the USDA food security survey questions) and how their material circumstances affected their academics. Now Trellis is analyzing its mountain of data to see what life and school look like for food-insecure students.

Ongoing analysis suggests a critical interplay between students’ available time, money and stress tolerance. Students generally prefer home-cooking but often lack the time to cook (and plan, shop and clean). In fact, some students’ schedules are so full that they spend more money being less food secure. As one student said:

I’m so focused on what I have to do, rather than eating or making sure I have food at home. I’ve been putting off grocery shopping for so long, and I was just eating out and spending a heap of money, which I didn’t really have.

Students with less food security more often sacrifice academics to make ends meet. They more frequently engage in behaviors they know will cause academic harm, including skipping class, rushing assignments and not buying textbooks, because they lack the time and money to both survive and live up to their full academic potential. These behaviors have consequences: One student was rejected by a nursing program after inadequate study time damaged her GPA. Another switched to part-time enrollment after a semester of subsistence finances and poor grades cost him his aid eligibility. Unsurprisingly, such circumstances place considerable stress on students, resulting in frequent anxiety which further degrades their capacity.

While some of the more worrisome aspects are highlighted above, food insecurity resists a single characterization. Even within a given level of food insecurity, Trellis has observed a spectrum of circumstances: sometimes dire, occasionally only distracting, most often risky and unsustainable. People generally find ways to get by; the problem is that these often unreliable, inefficient and ad hoc solutions frequently leave students’ academic persistence vulnerable to fairly common mishaps. They are one flat tire, bad cold or broken laptop away from a budget that can no longer maintain both school and sustenance. Trellis thinks that states can help.

States have several policy options to assist these struggling students. The magnitude of their response should correlate to the urgency of improving degree attainment among low-income students. For instance, states can promote FAFSA completion in high schools and expand need-based aid programs that can augment Pell Grants for many low-income students. Many campuses operate emergency aid programs for students with unexpected needs; states can help fund, coordinate and scale up these programs. States can also examine public benefit (SNAP, TANF, child care, health and housing) eligibility and usage among postsecondary students, and consider how to exercise rule-making discretion or take other steps to connect students with assistance.

We’ll have plenty more to say on this topic with our upcoming report and presentation at the National Forum on Education Policy. Hope to see you there!

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