Feature: The Reality of Today’s College Students: Addressing Students’ Economic and Material Well-Being

By Katharine M. Broton, Assistant Professor, University of Iowa

Despite idealized notions of college as a protected or even carefree time for emergent adulthood, the reality is that three-quarters of undergraduates are “nontraditional” or “new-traditional” students, meaning they do not fit the stereotype of a young adult attending college full-time immediately after high school.[1] Instead, most students are navigating college while managing significant work and family responsibilities, and they are doing so under considerable constraint.

Over the past several decades, the price of college has increased while family income and need-based financial aid have stagnated.[2] As a result, over half of students and their families must devote more than one-quarter of their total family income to the price of college, after aid received from grants.[3] Although most students work while attending college, students cannot work their way through college in the same way that prior generations did—the total price of college is too high and work pays too little.[4] To cope, students employ alternative strategies: attend part-time, leave college for a semester, take out loans, and cut back on books and basic material needs like food and shelter.

Against this backdrop of college unaffordability, declining availability of high-quality jobs for those without a postsecondary credential, and a fraying public social safety net, some students report that their daily lived experiences are marked by economic precarity and material uncertainty. Undergraduates explain that they sometimes sacrifice food and shelter in the short-term for the potential of longer-term economic and social success associated with a college credential.[5] Basic needs insecurities like food and housing insecurity include a range of experiences, and only the most severe are associated with the physiological sensation of hunger or outright homelessness. Still, what we might consider less severe forms of food insecurity, such as reducing the quality, variety, or desirability of diet, and housing insecurities like couch surfing, also take a significant cognitive, emotional, and physical toll on students. The stress and anxiety associated with worrying about where your next meal may come from, or when your friends say their couch is no longer available, impede students’ ability to do their best in school. Tropes about “broke” college students and jokes about the “ramen noodle diet” as a rite of passage minimize students’ very real challenges and impede efforts to promote basic needs security on college campuses.

Though there are no nationally representative estimates of basic needs insecurity among college students, the best evidence indicates that approximately half of undergraduates are food and/or housing insecure.[6] All types of students attending colleges and universities across the nation experience basic needs insecurity, but students from marginalized groups including former foster youth, racial/ethnic minorities, LGBTQ students, and students from low-income families are at an increased risk.

What implications for policy does this information have for colleges and universities? Awareness of basic needs insecurity and implications for college success has grown dramatically on campuses and in communities, and students, institutions, policymakers, and community leaders from across the nation are taking action to support students who are struggling to make ends meet.[7] Nearly seven hundred colleges and universities have on-campus food pantries, and others have meal voucher programs, free clothing closets, short-term housing accommodations, and other programs designed to respond to emergency situations. While students report that these services are essential, we have little empirical evidence on their impacts—and they fail to address the root causes of this systemic problem. In contrast, public policy changes that address the issue of college unaffordability, align the social safety net with our higher education system, support affordable housing options, and promote living wages would go a long way to promoting basic needs security among college students.

Given our substantial investment in higher education and the moral imperative to support those seeking a college credential, we must take action to address basic needs insecurity on college campuses. Such steps have the potential to increase college attainment rates and improve the health and well-being of our communities and nation.



[1] US Department of Education, Demographic and Enrollment Characteristics of Nontraditional Undergraduates: 2011–12, (Washington, DC: US Department of Education, 2015), https://nces.ed.gov/pubs2015/2015025.pdf.

[2]  Sara Goldrick-Rab, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2016).

[3] Robert Kelchen, “Trends in Net Prices by Family Income,” Kelchen on Education, June 6, 2018, https://robertkelchen.com/kelchen-on-education/.

[4] Katharine M. Broton, Sara Goldrick-Rab, and James Benson, “Working for College: The Causal Impacts of Financial Grants on Undergraduate Employment,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 38, no. 3 (2016): 477–494, https://doi.org/10.3102/0162373716638440.

[5] Katharine M. Broton, Kari E. Weaver, and Minhtuyen Mai, “Hunger in Higher Education: Experiences and Correlates of Food Insecurity among Wisconsin Undergraduates from Low-Income Families,” Social Sciences 7, no. 10 (2018): 179, https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci7100179.

[6] Aydin Nazmi et al., “A Systematic Review of Food Insecurity among U.S. Students in Higher Education,” Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition (2018): 1–16, https://doi.org/10.1080/19320248.2018.1484316; Katharine M. Broton, “A Review of Estimates of Housing Insecurity and Homelessness among U.S. Students in Higher Education,” (Forthcoming): Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless.

[7] Government Accountability Office, Food Insecurity: Better Information Could Help Eligible College Students Access Federal Food Assistance Benefits, (Washington DC: Government Accountability Office, 2018), https://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-19-95.