Divided We Learn

Study: Half or more of community college students struggle to afford food, housing

Biggest-ever survey on the topic also suggests that 14 percent of students are homeless

Two-thirds of students at American community colleges struggle to pay for food and half to find a stable place to live, according to a new survey billed as the biggest ever on the subject.

About 14 percent of community college students are homeless, the survey shows.

The figures reinforce earlier findings of smaller, regional studies, including one by the same research group. But with 33,000 students at 70 community colleges in 24 states, it’s the broadest look at the topic to date.

While attention is focused on the price of tuition, said coauthor Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, much of the cost of attending college goes to food, housing, and other expenses. And many students said they can’t afford those.

Half said they have no permanent places to live and move frequently because they can’t pay for rent or utilities. Those who are homeless said they live in shelters, cars, abandoned buildings or outdoors.

The survey was produced by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab in collaboration with the Association of Community College Trustees.

A 2015 survey by the HOPE Lab of 4,000 students at 10 community colleges in seven states found that half had trouble getting decent food. The newest, larger study put that proportion at two thirds.

It was conducted online last summer. Participating community colleges agreed to send the questions to more than 750,000 students, offering them a chance at one of 10 payouts of $100 for filling in the form.

The 33,000 who did were generally representative of community college students nationwide, though more were female—women generally are more likely to respond to surveys, the researchers said—and attended school full time.

A third of the students who said that they had trouble finding food or housing also said they worked part time and received financial aid.

The author of the book Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, Goldrick-Rab has argued that federal Pell Grants for low-income students have failed to keep pace with the cost of living that accounts for much of their investment in a higher education.

Hunger and homelessness was not limited to urban community colleges, or to any particular region. And community colleges with larger proportions of low-income and nonwhite students had only slightly higher rates of food and housing insecurity and homelessness.

A 2011 study by researchers at the City University of New York found that 39 percent of CUNY undergraduates couldn’t afford food and a quarter said they had trouble paying for both food and housing.

A survey last year of about 3,600 students at seven California community colleges by the Community College Equity Assessment Lab showed that about one-third had trouble finding stable housing or were homeless, and 12 percent couldn’t afford food.

And another study last year by the College and University Food Bank Alliance, National Campaign Against Student Hunger and Homelessness, Student Government Resource Center, and Student Public Interest Research Groups found that half of 3,765 students interviewed at eight community colleges and 26 public four-year colleges and universities in 12 states struggled to afford food and 13 percent were homeless.

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Jon Marcus

Jon Marcus, higher-education editor, has written about higher education for the Washington Post, USA Today, Time, the Boston Globe, Washington Monthly, is North America higher-education… See Archive

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