#RealCollege Sheds Light on College Homelessness and Food Insecurity

While the educational landscape has undergone a dramatic shift in previous years, it’s not just the way students are learning in the classroom that is changing. For many students, it’s the circumstances they face outside the classroom that are posing a far greater threat to their educations: Food insecurity, and homelessness. That's why Temple University held the first and only national conference on college homelessness and hunger that commenced with outlining where the problem began and where the problem will lead if proper action isn’t taken. 

The conference was rooted in recent study— conducted by Temple University professor Sara Goldrick-Rab, Katharine Broton of University of Iowa and Emily Brunjes Colo of the University of Wisconsin-Madison—that examines the realities for many college students.

According to the study, only 13 percent of college students live on campus. Nearly half attend community colleges. Only 14 percent of students enrolled in college who come from the lowest socioeconomic quartile complete a bachelor’s or higher degree within eight years of high school graduation, and 75 percent of students work for pay while in school—which includes a large portion of these students working full-time.

The reason for these numbers is hard to pinpoint, but the financial burdens college students undergo to get their educations are certainly straining and have increased over the years. According to the study, “From 2007 to 2013, the number of students qualifying for the federal Pell Grant grew from 6 million to 8.5 million." About half of recipients are from families below the federal poverty line. 

The study also cites a 2015 survey that showed, “of low and middle-income undergraduates, mostly in Wisconsin four-year colleges, found that 61 percent reported some food insecurity during prior academic year.” When worrying about where your next meal is coming from, your educational pursuits are inevitably placed on the back burner. During the conference, the hashtag #RealCollege accompanied the event and was used on Twitter to allow students everywhere to lend their voices and their stories to the conversation and shared the unique struggle of balancing these economic anxieties with the anxieties of being a student:

Selma “Justice” Butler, a homeless college student at Houston Community College gave her personal testimony and called for an increase in awareness to these issues an awakening on college campuses. Ruben Canedo, a first-generation college graduate and speaker at the event said that "Basic needs will always be a challenge so long as our systems continue to produce inequality." 

Unfortunately, though, the stigma that surrounds seeking financial aid and even basic essentials is deeply rooted. For many struggling with it in college, it's a familiar feeling that they have carried with them throughout their entire educational career.

“Most students who grow up in poverty continue to have the same financial constraints when they enter college,” Goldrick-Rab noted in her study. However, there is hope and there are viable solutions to these problems. 

In Goldrick-Rab’s, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, she outlines ways in which college campuses and the federal government can combat these numbers. She writes that the program National School Lunch Program ensures all children to two well-rounded, nutritional meals a day, and that it can easily be implemented into public colleges and universities.

“Students already identified as qualified for financial aid could be deemed eligible for subsidized college lunches," Goldrick-Rab writes. "Congress merely needs to modify authorizing legislation to redefine 'school' and extend program participation to adults."

So what can college students do right now?

"College students should first be aware that [their] peers may not always have a safe and secure place to live," Goldrick-Rab told Her Campus. "Assume nothing. If a friend isn't ok, ask what's up. Show your campus administrators these stories about homelessness on college campuses and ask if they know how many of their students are affected—and how did they know? Did they do a survey? If not, why not?"

The two-day conference and hashtag #RealCollege was a catalyst for a long overdue conversation and certainly shows the impact a few voices can have. Here's hoping those conversations about the difficult economic realities for today's college students will continue.