Basic Needs Insecurity Threatens College Student Success

A recent study from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab finds that two-thirds of surveyed community college students are food insecure and half are housing insecure. Even among students who work and receive financial aid, nearly a third still experience food or housing insecurity. The study is based on responses from over 33,000 students at 70 community colleges in 24 states—making it one of the largest, most diverse surveys ever fielded on community college students’ basic needs. The results show that basic needs insecurity is prevalent at community colleges throughout the nation, regardless of geographic or socioeconomic region.

Many community college students are low income and lack the supports needed to cover food and housing costs. Among surveyed Pell grant recipients, 60 percent are housing insecure and 16 percent are homeless. Sixty-four percent also have low food security. In addition, many of the neediest students don’t even get Pell grants. Among non-Pell students, 44 percent are housing insecure, 28 percent have low food security, and 12 percent are homeless. Further, just one-third of homeless community college students are also receiving student loans.

Racially diverse community colleges are slightly more likely to have high rates of food and housing insecurity. According to the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, 63 percent of students at the most diverse schools have low food security, compared to 54 percent of students at the least diverse schools. Additionally, 55 percent of students at the most diverse schools are housing insecure, compared to 49 percent at the least diverse schools.

The study also highlights major challenges for student parents and foster youth. Sixty-three percent of student parents in the study are housing insecure, 63 percent have low food security, and 14 percent are homeless. Only 5 percent of student parents report receiving child care assistance.  In addition, almost 30 percent of community college students who have experienced foster care are homeless; among those students, three quarters have low food security.

It’s extremely difficult for low-income college students to overcome unmet financial need. Among community college students—who tend to be older, racially diverse, financially independent, parents, and employed—unmet need averages $4,011. The shortfall is even greater for Black and Latino students. In most cases, financial aid isn’t enough to cover the total cost of attending college, leading to students borrow and work more, cut their course loads, or even drop out.

Public benefits are a proven to way to address these challenges. SNAP, TANF, and other programs can help low-income students increase their food and housing security and make ends meet while in school. Benefits Access for College Completion—a joint initiative by CLASP and the American Association of Community Colleges to connect more eligible students to public benefits—demonstrated a direct correlation between increased benefits access and improved progress toward degree completion.

While benefits can help low-income students finish school, there are numerous barriers that prevent access. Community colleges need to improve outreach to low-income students as well as help them apply for all the benefits for which they’re eligible. Additionally, Congress should amend the Higher Education Act to improve students’ access to supports. The benefits programs themselves, such as SNAP and subsidized child care, could also be revised to better support postsecondary attendance.

The Wisconsin HOPE Lab study was released at a town hall on college student hunger and homelessness on March 15, where CLASP’s Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield stressed the need to “better align public benefits policies to support postsecondary attendance to help more students complete and gain the qualifications for family-supporting jobs.” Innovative policies that enable underserved students to persist in and complete postsecondary education, such as ensuring low-income students have access to affordable health care, are critically important to help them secure good jobs and strengthen our economy.