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.