Many College Students Are Too Poor to Eat

But no one can agree on just how many. Now lawmakers are introducing a bill to change that.

Tom Merton / Getty

A recent federal watchdog report about the breadth of food insecurity on America’s college campuses came with a caveat: “Nationally representative survey data that would support direct estimates of the prevalence of food insecurity among college students do not exist,” the Government Accountability Office wrote in the report to lawmakers. There is a growing body of research saying that college students are routinely going hungry, but it is not consistent in describing the scale of the problem.

Whatever the exact numbers, the report stressed, there are possibly millions of students who don’t have enough to eat. One recent survey from Temple University, for example, found that nearly 50 percent of students at more than 100 schools couldn’t afford to eat a balanced meal and 35 percent of students were skipping meals entirely because they did not have enough money for food. Nationally, about 13 percent of Americans are food-insecure, but some surveys have estimated that the percent of college students in the same situation is roughly three times that. This population is particularly vulnerable to going hungry, as many are spending all available funds on costs associated with school, and holding down a full-time job—let alone a lucrative one—can be incredibly difficult.

Conservative critics of research on campus food insecurity, who oppose interventions to assist these college students, have used the lack of definitive, nationally representative samples to discount the work. Survey response rates were too low, they argued; there were shifting definitions of insecurity; the surveys were not optimally designed.

A new bill, released Thursday by Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut, with companion legislation sponsored in the House by Representative Jahana Hayes, also of Connecticut, and Representative Marcia Fudge of Ohio, aims to eliminate that doubt. The bill, which they are calling the Closing the College Hunger Gap Act, would require federal data collection on food and housing insecurity. “This bill is important so that we have a real, consistent national window on where student hunger is happening, where it's the worst, and [which] schools are creating interventions that make a difference,” Murphy told me in an interview. “The most important thing is to understand where it exists, and who's doing well to combat it. And until you standardize the data, you can't really compare interventions.” The data would be gathered by adding questions to the National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, a comprehensive, government-run examination of how students pay for college education.

The bill also aims to address one of the most significant findings of the GAO report: Almost 2 million “at-risk” students—meaning students who are low-income or first-generation, are raising children, or have another risk factor—do not receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, benefits (more commonly known as food stamps) for which they are potentially eligible. “Students cannot solely rely on the generosity of food banks to keep on course to succeed—we need to prioritize and address the systemic barriers in the way of an equitable path to a college degree,” Hayes told me in a statement. The bill directs the secretary of education to work with federal agencies to reach out to students who might be eligible for the benefits.

But the onus would not fall only on the government, Murphy expects. “When schools all of a sudden have to report on food-insecurity rates, they will become more interested in finding ways to make students less food-insecure,” he told me. “And the easiest and most cost-effective way for schools to reduce food insecurity is to get more of their kids signed up for SNAP if they’re eligible.”

Of course, in a divided Congress, the path forward for the bill is unclear. Congress is considering a reauthorization of the federal law governing higher education, known as the Higher Education Act, and experts are skeptical as to whether any legislation affecting higher education could move outside of that bill. Senators Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Patty Murray of Washington, the leading Republican and Democrat on the Senate education committee, respectively, have both said they want to strike a deal on a reauthorization bill before the end of this Congress, but disagreement on fundamental issues such as student aid and how colleges should be held accountable for things like completion have slowed progress.

But Murphy and Hayes have hope for their legislation because, as Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor at Temple whose work has thrust the issue into the national spotlight, told me in January: “Food insecurity is a college-completion issue,” meaning that it’s causing students to drop out. By not solving the problem, she said, “we’re undermining our federal investment in financial aid.”

Murphy echoed that sentiment. “When schools aren’t accountable for who completes and who doesn’t, then they don’t feel the need to think about the barriers to completion, like hunger,” he told me. The bill, he hopes, would be a first step toward getting students fed, and eventually graduated.