Many college students struggle to have their basic needs met (2023)

More than a 1/3 of college students in the United States lack enough to eat and stable housing. A study of 43,000 students at 31 community colleges and 35 four-year universities in 20 states and Washington, D.C. found that 36% of college students are food insecure, and 36% are in precarious housing situations.10 The lead author of this report told National Public Radio, “It really undermines [college students’] ability to do well in school. Their grades suffer, their test scores appear to be lower, and overall, their chances of graduating are slimmer. They can barely escape their conditions of poverty long enough to complete their degrees.”26

Food insecurity and housing instability among college students are systemic problems that are rooted in structural causes. The good news is, this can be solved.

How do food insecurity and housing instability affect college students?

Food insecurity for college students can mean running out of food between paychecks, attending campus events in search of food, reducing food intake, purchasing minimally nutritious food that costs less, skipping meals and deciding between paying for textbooks or food. Housing instability for college students could mean not having enough money to pay for off-campus housing or dorms, sleeping at friends’ homes or in one’s car, or living in substandard conditions. The most severe form of housing instability is homelessness. Approximately 9% of college students reported being homeless.10

Why are more college students experiencing challenges in meeting their basic needs? And why is it important?

While most college students continue to be from middle- and higher-incomes, there has been an increase in low-income adults enrolling in colleges.8 In 1996, 21% of college students were from low-income backgrounds compared to 31% in 2016.8 There has been a simultaneous decrease in public funding for higher education, a steep increase in tuition rates, and more students entering college with fewer financial resources.

Between 2008 and 2017, funding for public colleges and universities decreased by $9 billion dollars.19 The current Administration proposed a further cut of $7.1 billion dollars from the Education Department. Most of these cuts would impact student aid programs for low-income students, such as Pell Grants, which were developed in the 1970s to help low-income students pay for college.14 With less funding for public institutions of higher education, students bear the cost. Since 2008, tuition costs have risen 35% on average. However, in states like Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Georgia and Hawaii, tuition is up more than 60% since 2008.19 In 1975, Pell Grants offset 79% of the average cost tuition. Today, the maximum grant is $6,195 per year, which, on average, covers 29% of the cost of attending college.7 Most low-income students do not receive the maximum amount.

Decreased funding to higher education not only influences the rising cost of tuition, it also means more students need to seek loans. Sixty-five percent of college students in the United States graduate with an average of $29,200 in student loan debt.12 Low-income students are at higher risk of student loan debt that exceeds the national average.11 Increased debt leaves low-income students with a dramatic disadvantage after graduation.

Low-income students enroll in college to increase their chances of social and economic mobility. However, decreased public funding of higher education, increased tuition costs, reduced financial aid and the student loan debt crisis make it more difficult for low-income college students to reach their aspirations. Higher education is proving not to be a panacea to economic inequality, but rather exacerbates inequities for low-income college students.

The stress associated with housing instability and food insecurity negatively impacts daily life for low-income college students. The inability to meet basic needs has adverse consequences for their psychosocial outcomes and educational attainment including college completion, academic performance, concentration in class, class attendance, fear of disappointing family, sadness, hopelessness, isolation, embarrassment and frustration.18, 20, 30

College campus food pantries and other innovative ideas

Colleges and universities are attempting to support students facing these crises. Campus food pantries have emerged to support food-insecure college students. The College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) at Michigan State University is the first known campus food pantry, which started in 1993. Today over 780 campus pantries are registered with CUFBA.3 Most campus food pantries are started by concerned faculty and staff who hear from students that they are skipping meals or making a choice between food or purchasing textbooks.6 Most campus food pantries provide perishable and non-perishable foods. Depending upon space and regional climate, some college food pantries also carry winter coats and socks. Research examining campus food pantries finds that directors and staff report deep concern for student success and show interest in working across institutions to solve challenges and develop a community of best practices.21, 22, 23, 27

(Video) College Student Basic Needs

Colleges and universities are developing other innovative solutions as well. Middlesex Community College in Connecticut started the Campus Magic Food Bus, which is a mobile food pantry that provides free food to students and staff. Other campuses across the nation are partnering with Single Stop USA to assess college students’ needs and connect them with appropriate assistance programs. According to the Single Stop USA program assessment report, the program improves retention rates by up to 20%.5, 9, 35 While campus food pantries are a crucial immediate step in addressing food insecurity and housing instability, these are not long-term solutions. Federal policy solutions would have a lasting impact on eradicating low-income college students’ economic issues and place educational attainment within their reach.

Policy solutions

The Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965 is the legislation that sets forth higher education student aid programs. The HEA is currently going through the reauthorization process, making this is a critical time to evaluate how to support low-income students better. The National Association of Student Financial Aid and Administrators issued a report (PDF, 2.21MB) on recommendations for expanding federal aid programs.

Pell Grants

More than 10 million low-income college students rely on Pell Grants. In 2012, Congress made deep cuts to the Pell Grant program and changed eligibility requirements so that fewer students would qualify. According to the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, the funding cuts and restrictive eligibility requirements “reduces the level of annual appropriations for the program by an estimated $11 billion over the coming decade”.17 Meanwhile, the Trump administration has proposed a further budget cut of $1.6 billion in Pell Grant aid to increase NASA funding for a return trip to the moon by 2024.4 Additionally, Secretary of Education DeVos has proposed turning the Pell Grant program to a short-term program with the stated goal of directing low-income students away from four-year colleges and instead to short-term certificate programs.15 These policies exacerbate already stagnating generational economic mobility. Increased federal funding to the Pell Grant program would greatly benefit college students in their educational pursuits and their ability to achieve the American Dream.

Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP)

SNAP is the federal food aid program. The U.S. Department of Agriculture states that “most able-bodied students 18 through 49 who are enrolled in college or other institutions of higher education at least half time are not eligible for SNAP benefits”.31 One exemption is if college students work at least 20 hours per week in paid employment.31 The College Student Hunger Act of 2017 (H.R. 3875) proposes expanding the SNAP program to cover low-income college students. Unfortunately, this bill continues to sit on hold in committee despite 38 cosponsors representing 20 states and the U.S. territory of Guam. Expanding SNAP to otherwise eligible college students and eliminating work requirements would help low-income students complete their education.

Federal Work-Study Program

The Federal Work-Study Program “provides part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need, allowing them to earn money to help pay education expenses.”32 Research shows that the program has a positive impact on college completion.29 It also allows low-income students access to the professional world who otherwise would not be able to take unpaid internships.28 Critics argue that the program needs reform because many of the subsidized jobs it funds go to paid employment at the college rather than the community.2 Rather than expanding and reforming the program to more closely align outcomes to goals, the Trump administration seeks to cut the program by 50%.28

Housing Assistance Programs

Individuals and families in the United States are facing a housing affordability crisis.25 Due to limited funds and large numbers of households in need of assistance, many low-income individuals and families are on waiting lists for years.33 For instance, under existing funding levels, about one in four eligible households received rental assistance.24 Because housing authorities can prioritize order of aid recipients, in times of high need, college students are often placed at the bottom, leaving more and more students to sleep on others’ sofas or in their cars.13 As for on-campus housing and food plans, there has been a precipitous increase in cost, making it unaffordable for many low-income students.1 In the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, there are no proposals to address housing affordability for low-income college students.

Concluding thoughts

We have the power to create change within our campus communities. In addition to advocating on behalf of food insecure and precariously housed college students, such as contacting congressional representatives and senators for our respective states to support increasing Pell Grants, suggest that they enact the SNAP policy changes from the recent Government Accountability Office report (PDF, 1.65MB), and expand work study and housing assistance programs.34 Those of us working in higher education can:

  • Put basic needs statements on our syllabi.
  • Help to organize food drives on our campus.
  • Partner with the library to waive fees for food donations.
  • Have healthy snacks available during office hours.
  • Talk openly with the students at the start of the semester about on-campus resources to destigmatize the issues.
  • Devote our research skills to our campus food pantry’s assessment or research needs.

These short-term solutions to meet immediate needs help to create an environment of care and community that support struggling students in their educational pursuits.


1Archibald, R.B., & Feldman, D.H. (2010). Are plush dorms and fancy food plans important drivers of college cost? The Magazine of Higher Learning, 43(1), 31-37. DOI: 10.1080/00091383.2011.538649

2Baum, S. (2019, March). Rethinking Federal Work-Study: Incremental reform is not enough. Urban Institute, Retrieved from (PDF, 247KB)

3Cady, C. (2019, Sept. 26). Email

(Video) Basic needs: It’s more than minimal food and housing, according to California university students

4Colvin, J. (2019, May 113). Trump targets Pell Grant money for NASA’s budget boost. Associated Press, Retrieved from

5Daugherty, L., Johnston, W.R., & Tsai, T. (2016). Connecting college students to alternative sources of support: The single stop community college initiative and postsecondary outcomes. RAND Corporation, Retrieved from (PDF, 1.72MB)

6Dubick, J., Mathews, B., & Cady, C. (2016, October). Hunger on campus: The challenge of food insecurity for college students. A report by College and University Food Bank Alliance, National Student Campaign Against Hunger and Homelessness, Student Government Resource Center, and Student Public Interest Research Group. Retrieved from (PDF, 6.55MB)

7Fernandez, M. (2019, November 2). Pell Grant loses its punch against the rising cost of college. Axios, Retrieved from

8Fry, R., & Cilluffo, A. (2019, May 22). A rising share of undergraduates are from poor families, especially at less selective colleges. Pew Research Center: Social & Demographic Trends, Retrieved from

9Goldrick-Rab, S., Broton, K., & Frank, V.M. (2014). Single Stop’s USA community college initiative: Implementation assessment. Wisconsin Hope Lab, Retrieved from (PDF, 615KB)

10Goldrick-Rab, S., Richardson, J., Schneider, J., Hernandez, A., & Cady, C. (2018, April). Still hungry and homeless in college. Wisconsin Hope Lab, Retrieved from (PDF, 1.33MB)

11Houle, J.N. (2013). Disparities in debt: Parents’ socioeconomic resources and young adult student loan debt. Sociology of Education, 87(1), 53-69.

12Institute for College Access & Success. (2019, September). Student debt and the class of 2018, Retrieved from (PDF, 1.18MB)

13Jones, C. (2019, June 10). Homeless in college: Students sleep in cars, on couches when they have nowhere else to go. USA Today, Retrieved from

14Kreighbaum, A. (2019a, March 12). Trump seeks billions in cuts. Inside Higher Ed, Retrieved from

(Video) How an Affordable Housing Program Supports College Students

15Kreighbaum, A. (2019b, March 27). DeVos questioned on short-term Pell Grants. Inside Higher Ed, Retrieved from

16Legislative Analyst’s Office. (2019, April 25). Student food and housing insecurity at the University of California, Retrieved from

17Merrick, K. (2011, Dec. 21). Cutting Pell Grants is unnecessary and unwise. Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Retrieved from

18Meza, A., Altman, E., Martinez, S., & Leung, C.W. (2019). “It’s a feeling that one is not worth food”: A qualitative study exploring the psychosocial experience and academic consequences of food insecurity among college students. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 119(10), 1713-1721.

19Mitchell, M., Leachman, M., & Masterson, K. (2017, Aug. 23). A lost decade in higher education funding: State cuts have driven up tuition and reduced quality. Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Retrieved from

20Patton-López, M.M., López-Cevallos, D.F., Cancel-Tirado, D.I., & Vazquez, L. (2014). Prevalence and correlates of food insecurity among students attending a midsize rural university in Oregon. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 46(3), 209-214.

21Price, C., Sampson, N., Reppond, H.A., Thomas-Brown, K., & Camp, J. (2019). Creating a community of practice among Michigan college campuses food pantry directors. Journal of Community Practice. DOI: 10.1080/10705422.2019.1580655

22Price, C., Watters, E., Reppond, H. A., Sampson, N., & Thomas-Brown, K. (2019). Problem-solving challenges: Operating a campus food pantry to improve student success. Journal of Social Distress and Homelessness. DOI: 10.1080/10530789.2020.1677006

23Reppond, H.A., Thomas-Brown, K., Sampson, N., & Price, C.E. (2018). Addressing food insecurity in college: Mapping a shared conceptual framework for campus pantries in Michigan. Analyses of Social Issues and Public Policy, 18(1), 378-399. DOI: 10.1111/asap.12161

24Rice, D. (2019, Aug. 26). Strengthening housing vouchers should be priority in 2020 funding bills. Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Retrieved from

25Richardson, B. (2019, Jan. 31). America’s housing affordability crisis only getting worse. Forbes, Retrieved from

(Video) Transforming Basic Needs Supports In California Higher Education

26Romo, V. (2018, April 3). Hunger and homelessness are widespread among college students, study finds. National Public Radio, Retrieved from

27Sampson, N., Price, C., Reppond, H.A., Thomas-Brown, K., & De Roche, M. (In Press). Feminist action research for instigating community, organizational, and policy changes to address food insecurity among college students. Action Research.

28Scott-Clayton, J. (2017, June 22). Federal work-study: Past its prime, or ripe for renewal? Brookings Institute, Retrieved from

29Scott-Clayton, J., & Zhou, R.Y. (2017, March). Does the Federal Work-Study Program really work — and for whom? Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment, Retrieved from (PDF, 215KB)

30Silva, M. R., Kleinert, W. L., Sheppard, A. V., Cantrell, K. A., Freeman-Coppadge, D. J., Tsoy, E., ... & Pearrow, M. (2017). The relationship between food security, housing stability, and school performance among college students in an urban university. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory & Practice, 19(3), 284-299.

31United States Department of Agriculture. (2013, Nov. 7). Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP): Students, Retrieved from

32United States Department of Education. (n.d.). Federal student aid, Retrieved from

33United States Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2019, Oct. 25). Housing instability, Retrieved from

34United States Government Accountability Office. (2018, December). Food insecurity: Better information could help eligible college studentsaccess federal assistance benefits. Retrieved from (PDF, 1.65MB)

35Zhu, J., Harnett, S., & Scuello, M. (2018, September). Single stop final impact and implementation report: College initiative. Metis Associates, Retrieved from (PDF, 4.30MB)


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