Are College Students Starving?

Multiple reports seem to think so.

“Food insecurity – the lack of reliable access to sufficient quantities of affordable, nutritious food – is common at colleges and universities across the country, potentially undermining the educational success of untold thousands of students,” a college report from the nonprofit Students Against Hunger, a project of the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), says.

A survey was conducted of over 3,000 students at 34 colleges and universities across the United States, finding 48% of them experienced ‘food insecurity’ over just the past 30 days. 22% of them experienced “very low levels of food security that qualify them as hungry.”

The report, published in October 2016, found 25% of community college students reported experiencing food insecurity, compared with 20% of four-year college students. 57% of black students reported experiencing food insecurity, compared with 40% of non-Hispanic white students. 56% of first-generation college students reported experiencing food insecurity, compared with 45% of students who had at least one parent who attended college.

The principle investigator on the study, Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, said her team of researchers at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab conducted the largest study of food insecurity on college campuses to date, finding that one in five students surveyed were experiencing what was classified as hunger, and 13% were homeless.

“At this point, we need to move beyond being surprised at the numbers and develop action plans,” Goldnick-Rab says.

Many students are attending these institutes of higher education with hopes of living a better life and adding to their careers. However, it seems the more prestigious their pursued degrees, the higher their chances of starvation.

A 2012 study by the Chronicle of Higher Education found the number people with master’s degrees on food stamps nearly tripled, and the number of PhDs on food stamps more than tripled within the span of just over three years.

At Michigan State University, the on-campus food pantry serving starving students reported more than half of its clients are graduate students.

In a July 2016 study, the University of California (UC) reported that out of 8,932 surveyed UC students across all ten UC campuses, 23% were classified as having “low” food security, while an additional 19% of them were classified as having “very low” food security as defined by the USDA.

Students have reportedly been skipping meals to pay for books and fees, or trying to find ways of not having to buy textbooks in order to pay for food. The same study reports 59% of 354 students at an Oregon public university are food insecure, 27% of 410 students at a Hawaiian public university are food insecure, and 39% of 1,086 New York City public colleges and universities are food insecure.

That study comes on the heels of reports that college tuition has been skyrocketing in the meantime. Harvard’s annual tuition and fees excluding room and board, for example, are 17 times higher than they were four decades ago. The average cost of tuition and fees at a four-year university in the United States this year was $31,231 for private schools and $9,139 for public schools.

“If you look at the long-term trend, [college tuition] has been rising almost six percent above the rate of inflation,” Ray Franke, a professor of education at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, said. “That’s brought immense pressure from the media and general public, asking whether college is still worth it.”

Even students with paying jobs and financial aid are skipping meals to pay for other things, a survey from the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA) finds. Over half of students who reportedly experienced food insecurity during college also held paying jobs and financial aid, and many were enrolled in a meal plan, the CUFBA national survey found.

“Food insecurity is a problem even for students who are employed, who have a meal plan or are receiving financial aid,” CUFBA co-founder Clare Cady said. “The things that we assume would make them financially secure are not cutting it.”

While colleges and universities around the world are experiencing a rise in graduation rates, the United States seems to be falling behind. An 2014 OECD study finds the U.S. ranks 19th out of 29 countries in terms of student graduation rates, compared with its 1995 ranking as the first among developed countries, with a 33% graduation rate.

This does not reflect a decrease in U.S. graduation rates, but a stagnation, which CNBC’s John W. Schoen suggests might indicate a growing reluctance among Americans to strive for the same level of education as their parents.

“As a smaller share of Americans reach their parents’ level of education, they can look forward to lower incomes than previous generations. And that means they’ll have less money to pay tuition for their children,” Schoen says.

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