THE BLOG
05/13/2016 02:02 pm ET Updated May 13, 2017

Hunger on College Campuses: Another Barrier to Getting a Degree?

Wick Sloane teaches a college writing class at Bunker Hill Community College, where he also manages the Emergency Assistance Fund. There are weeks, he said, he spends "more time helping students sign up for food stamps than I have correcting essays." The same thing is true for many of his colleagues.

"Hunger and food stamps have been my major professional development since I started teaching at BHCC," Sloane said.

Sloane's experience at Bunker Hill is not unique. Hunger and food insecurity among college students across the nation, and not just at community colleges, is a significant and growing problem, even at some of the elite colleges and universities. And, like most of the socioeconomic problems facing us today, it is complex and not easy to solve.

Students who experience hunger and food insecurity on campus struggle in many ways. The threat of needing to make a choice between continuing to shoulder the burden of paying for college and not having enough money for living expenses, or dropping out to work to pay for food and rent is constant. So is the risk of stigma and embarrassment in asking for help or of going to classes and not doing as well as you can because of fatigue and gnawing hunger.

A study by The City University of New York found that about 40 percent of its 274,000 students experienced food insecurity in the past year and the percentage was higher among students who worked at least 20 hours per week and for Black and Latino students. That comes to almost 110,000 students.

While the high and rising costs of college tuitions and fees represent a barrier to enrolling in and staying in college, according to the College Board, it is all of the other costs such as rent, food, child care, gas, and phone bills that account for more than 70 percent of the total cost of attending a two-year college. And these costs may not be built into the financial aid students may receive.
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Bunker Hill has, as part of its Emergency Assistance Fund, established a food bank on campus, supplied with the help of local donations.

Other colleges and universities, as well as national organizations such as the College and University Food Bank Alliance, have done the same. This is to their credit but this approach, while necessary, is not a solution.

We need to recognize that the positive changes we are seeing in the demographics of the college population, in which more low- and middle-income students, many of whom are first-to-college, and the higher costs of higher education are negatively intersecting. Since the downturn in the economy and the decrease in state support of public education, there has been a significant shift of the cost of college education to students and families. For many of those families the increased cost has resulted in sending their children off to school without enough money to make it safely through a day, much less a semester.

One significant part of the problem facing these families is that, currently, colleges alone determine the cost of attendance (COA). The COA is what caps students' eligibility for federal, state and other financial aid. A study by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab shows that colleges tend to underestimate COA and suggests that this might be an institutional choice. That is, since colleges are under pressure to keep their price low, they have an incentive to underestimate the non-tuition portion of the total price that do not end up in their pockets.

Listening to the experiences of Wick Sloane and all of the dedicated educators and students for whom dealing with hunger on college campuses, it is clear that this growing issue is one that needs to be dealt with head-on. Perhaps one metric by which we rate colleges should be how well they address the needs of students in extreme financial difficulty.

We must find ways to make sure that colleges have a stake in helping financially struggling students to meet some of their basic daily needs related attempting to meet the high and often-unanticipated COA. One way may be through the establishment of Emergency Assistance Funds on all campuses with application process that are neither stigmatizing nor overly burdensome.

In the long run we must advocate for changes in federal policies and programs that recognize the changing needs of many of today's students. We must ensure that colleges do not benefit from students who drop-out due to extreme hardship, and we must also advocate for a change in financial aid formulas that realistically account for the cost of living as well as the cost of tuition.