Community College Students Experiencing Hunger and Homelessness

In March, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, in partnership with the Association for Community College Trustees, released results from a national study of basic needs insecurity among community college undergraduates.

Based on the Wisconsin HOPE Lab’s 2015 study of 4,000 students at 10 community colleges in seven states, the 2017 study is the largest of its kind to date. Seventy institutions in 24 states sent the instrument to more than 750,000 students, garnering a 4.5% response rate (N = 33,934).

While not a nationally representative sample of students or colleges, the survey included “twice as many institutions and eight times as many respondents as any other survey focused on food and housing insecurity among college students,” according to the report, Hungry and Homeless in College. Three critical areas of basic needs security were explored:

  • Food insecurity: The limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner.
  • Homelessness: When a person is without a place to live, often residing in a shelter, an automobile, an abandoned building, or outside.
  • Housing insecurity: A broader set of challenges such as the inability to pay rent or utilities or the need to move frequently.

Its findings served to affirm previous research while offering new discoveries as well. As in other studies, this one found that 13–14% of students indicated they were homeless. However, “We found substantially higher rates of food insecurity among community college students than previously reported. Our 2015 report indicated that about half of community college students were food insecure, but this study found that two in three students are food insecure.”

Additionally, the 2017 study examined the demographic characteristics among community college students experiencing basic needs insecurity:

  • Students in urban and rural areas throughout the United States experienced basic needs insecurity.  
  • Almost 30% of former foster youth were homeless, “a far higher rate than that of non-former foster youth attending community college (13%).” 
  • Most homeless students were older than 25 (73%).
  • The largest racial population among homeless students was non-Hispanic white (37%).
  • Among students with children, 63% were food insecure “and almost 14% were homeless, but only about 5% received any child care assistance.”

Paying for College

The cost of attendance varied among the community colleges represented in the study, from $11,934 to $26,563, although its mean was consistent with national averages. According to findings from the study, “The community colleges with the lowest costs of attendance (often more accessible to people with fewer means) have somewhat higher rates of food and housing insecurity (55% and 50%) than the most expensive ones 
(50% and 46%).” 

The study posed several questions to learn more about students’ finances and found: “Between 31– 32% of students experiencing food or housing insecurity were both working and receiving financial aid.” A third of housing insecure or homeless community college students in the study used student loans to finance their education, and 16–18% used credit cards. Students receiving Pell grants were more likely to experience housing insecurity or homelessness. Among all students experiencing housing insecurity or homelessness, less than 13% received assistance with housing costs. In terms of food insecurity, “Less than 30% of food-insecure community college students received food stamps and only 4% received cash assistance,” the 
report indicated.

Compared to housing-secure students, the homeless students who worked were more likely to have jobs unrelated to their major or career goals, make less per hour, work more hours per week (typically 20–40), and have less reliable work schedules that interfered with school. They also reported getting less sleep and feeling less safe. Such conditions have been tied to higher stress levels, lower GPAs, and reduced likelihood of graduation. 

How to Help

According to the report, few community colleges have case workers or other personnel with the training and responsibility for coordinating advocacy efforts for students’ basic needs security. Therefore, a necessary first step is understanding how such services are managed on one’s campus. Providing training to existing staff about poverty, income inequality, and socioeconomic class can also broaden the campus community’s network of support. Additionally, union and activities professionals can examine policies and programs to ensure they are inclusive of lower income and homeless students.
Many campus centers have incorporated food pantries into their portfolio of services, often in coordination with a local food bank. Others have initiated campus gardens and food recovery programs to address food insecurity. The College and University Food Bank Alliance, the Food Recovery Network, Swipe Out Hunger, Oh SNAP! and other organizations can be resources in creating such services.

Individuals can also bring attention to the issues around basic needs insecurity and correct misinformation. More research is needed to determine the efficacy of various intervention strategies and ultimately to support retention among those students faced with hunger and homelessness.


Goldrick-Rab, S., Richardson, J., & Hernandez, A. (2017). Hungry and homeless in college: Results from a national student of basic needs insecurity in higher education. Available from Wisconsin HOPE Lab:
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