Nearly half of Massachusetts’ community college students and a third in the state colleges and universities cannot afford consistent access to food and housing, according to a new study that found an alarming number of students unable to meet basic needs as they pursue their degrees.
In a state that prides itself on its world-renowned private universities, the survey showed that students in the public higher education system struggle to pay for food and housing in ways that go well beyond the stereotypical image of students scraping by on ramen noodles in apartments crowded with roommates.
Among the state’s community college students, 13 percent reported that they were homeless in the past year, with most of those saying they did not know where they were going to sleep, even for one night, or had been thrown out of their home.
Fifteen percent said they had lost weight because they didn’t have enough food; 25 percent said they had been hungry but didn’t eat because they didn’t have enough money; and 34 percent said they worried whether their food would run out before they got money to buy more.
At the state’s public four-year colleges and universities, 10 percent reported being homeless in the past year. Twenty percent said they had been hungry but didn’t eat because they didn’t have enough money. And 28 percent said the food they bought didn’t last and they didn’t have enough money to buy more.
The stresses could threaten the students’ ability to graduate because students who reported not having adequate access to food and housing were more likely to miss class and get lower grades, according to the survey, and twice as likely to report moderate to severe depression than their classmates who were well-fed and securely housed.
“We’re talking about people who are missing meals and losing weight and, in some cases, even going a day or even more than a day in the last month without eating anything,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab , a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University and founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which conducted the online survey of 8,300 students at 23 of the state’s 28 public colleges. “It’s not the standard, ‘I’m just scrimping.’ ”
Despite Massachusetts’ high costs, the rates of housing and food insecurity and homelessness were roughly equivalent to those in national surveys. The problem might be worse here, state education officials, but Massachusetts has a more generous safety net than other states. Almost all of the state colleges and universities, for example, operate their own food pantries or have partnerships with community food banks.
At a time when private colleges have been luring students with sushi bars, fresh-tossed salads, and other increasingly lavish meals, Susan Benitez, 30, an Army veteran and student government president at Bunker Hill Community College, said the problem of housing and food insecurity is more widespread than many realize. She said that even though she receives GI Bill benefits, she has had to rely on food stamps and use the campus food pantry.
“There are days where I can’t even afford to buy a chip . . . and I know I can go up there [to the food pantry] to get bread,” said Benitez, who is graduating with two associate’s degrees and was just accepted to Stanford. “You can’t study if you are hungry.”
The survey found that students of color and LGBTQ students were more likely to lack consistent access to food and adequate housing. Compared to their white classmates, for example, black students were 20 percentage points more likely to struggle to afford food and 11 percentage points more likely to have trouble paying for housing.
Former foster children reported the highest levels of food and housing insecurity, with two-thirds having trouble regularly affording food, three-fourths struggling to pay housing bills, and nearly a quarter saying they had been homeless in the past year.
Goldrick-Rab said she is concerned the actual number of students struggling to pay for food and housing might be higher because those who are homeless or working multiple jobs are less likely to have the time or computer access to respond to an online survey.
“I’m worried this is an undercount,” she said. “That’s scary to me because these are already substantial numbers of students being affected.”
Goldrick-Rab conducted the survey at the request of state higher education officials and college administrators. It makes Massachusetts the second state, after California, to comprehensively examine housing and food insecurity in its public higher education system, she said. The HOPE lab is widely recognized as a leader in studying food and housing insecurity on college campuses.
Carlos E. Santiago, the state commissioner of higher education, said that while he was aware students struggle with housing and hunger, “the numbers are so stark . . . it really is sobering.”
“It makes me pause on what to do next because it shows we have to do something,” he said. “We have to be able to improve the lives of these students.”
Santiago said the state is considering one plan that would subsidize dorm rooms at state colleges and universities for community college students, homeless students, and others who cannot afford housing.
Goldrick-Rab said states could also prevent hunger by subsidizing one meal a day for college students — effectively expanding the national school lunch program to include the public higher education system.Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mlevenson.