September 29, 2023

GAO report reviews studies on student hunger

Author: Ashley A. Smith
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A long-awaited report examining the extent of hunger on college campuses recommends increasing students’ awareness of federal food assistance benefits so that institutions can better combat the problem.

The U.S. Government Accountability Office report, which was released today, examined 31 studies on food insecurity among students and determined that about two million at-risk students who were potentially eligible for food aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, did not report receiving the benefits in 2016.

The report was the result of a 2017 request by Senate Democrats that the GAO assess college hunger after several surveys found that students were experiencing food insecurity.

“As the costs of college continue to climb, it’s clear that students are struggling to afford more than just tuition — many are unable to afford textbooks, housing, transportation, childcare and even food,” Washington senator Patty Murray said in a statement. “This report confirms that food insecurity is a widespread issue on our nation’s campuses and that there’s a lot of work to do to ensure students are getting enough to eat. As we work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, I look forward to building on the recommendations of this report to make college truly affordable by addressing the total costs of college.”

Despite broad agreement that the problem is extensive, finding consensus on a clear or accurate estimate of the number of hungry college students has not been easy. The report notes that estimates in various studies on food insecurity ranged from 9 percent to more than 50 percent.

The report highlights one national study from the Urban Institute last year that estimates:

  • 11 percent of households with a student in a four-year college experienced food insecurity
  • 14 percent of households with a student in a vocational or technical program experienced food insecurity
  • 17 percent of households with a student in a community college experienced food insecurity

The report states that part of the reason for the growing rates of hunger is the increase in low-income students attending college. It is also a reflection of changing student demographics. The percentage of all undergraduates who had a household income at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line increased from 28 percent in 1996 to 39 percent in 2016, according to national data.

The number of students receiving Pell Grants has also increased from about 23 percent in 1999 to about 40 percent in 2016.

“It is time to not only think about tuition and fees but basic needs,” said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College in Boston. “That’s why our students are failing out of college. Sometimes they’re choosing between food and books.”

Eddinger said people have long doubted that students were going hungry in significant numbers because of assumptions that students attending four-year colleges are financially supported by their parents. Those students are no longer in the majority, she said. The struggles of Bunker Hill’s students, and the community college’s efforts to help them, have been documented in the columns of Inside Higher Ed‘s Wick Sloane, an administrator there.

The traditional college student is no longer a teenager that enrolled at an institution immediately after graduating high school and who is financially dependent on her parents. According to federal data, about half of all undergraduate students in 2016 were financially independent of their parents. About 22 percent of all undergrads that year had dependent children of their own, and 14 percent were single parents. The average college student today is 26 years old.

The GAO’s analysis focused on the 39 percent of students whose income was below 130 percent of the federal poverty line and found that most low-income students also experience additional risk factors for food insecurity. The three most common factors were being a first-generation college student, receiving SNAP benefits and being a single parent.

The GAO report also looked at low-income students with at least one risk factor for food insecurity who were eligible for SNAP and determined that 57 percent did not report participating in the federal program. Another one-quarter of 5.5 million low-income students with at least one additional risk factor for food insecurity did not meet any of the student exemptions allowed under SNAP and would likely be ineligible to participate in the program, according to the report.

“No student should have to decide whether or not they will eat that day or go hungry while they work hard towards a better future,” Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement. “This GAO report is not only the first-ever federal report on hunger at American colleges and universities, but is also an important step towards ensuring students have what they need to succeed.”

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