As College Costs Rise, So Does the Number of Hungry and Homeless Students

Out of 4,000 students surveyed, 13 percent said they were homeless, 20 percent claimed hunger

Pizza Slices on Platter / As College Costs Rise, So Does the Number of Hungry and Homeless Students
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January 08, 2017

New research shows that the number of hungry and homeless students enrolled in colleges and universities nationwide has risen alongside the costs of paying for college.

Unfortunately, NPR reports that the public is mostly unaware of the problem.

"It's invisible even to me and I'm looking," said Wick Sloan, who began teaching English full time at Boston's Bunker Hill Community College more than 10 years ago. He says that it felt as if he also became a part-time social worker very soon after.

"When I first got here, I was always told that we should never miss a chance to give students food," he said. "I foolishly thought at the time they meant Doritos and cookies. It's protein that they're after. It's crazy."

Bunker Hill hosts one out of 25 food assistance programs on public college campuses in Massachusetts. Only four of the state's public campuses do not have one.

One freshman at Bunker Hill, whose name NPR withheld to protect her safety and privacy, was living in a Boston shelter when she decided last summer that she wanted to enroll in classes. However, she didn't feel safe at that shelter.

"If I wanted to get good grades, if I wanted to get a good education, I needed to be at a slightly safer shelter," she said.

She was placed on a long waiting list to get a bed at a youth home, and she finally got in six months later. Then she enrolled at Bunker Hill, where she is now majoring in math.

"I knew that I really loved learning, but I wasn't sure if I was going to fit into the education system," she said.

But she says that the school pleasantly surprised her. "This is a really good place to figure out where you might go with your education," she said.

College administrators around the nation are seeing more and more students like her.

University of Wisconsin researchers surveyed more than 4,000 undergraduates at community colleges across the U.S. Twenty percent of the students surveyed reported being hungry, while 13 percent said they were homeless.

Study leader and sociologist Sara Goldrick-Rab said that the problem isn't simply that students need to work while they're in school. "It's that they're working, and borrowing, and sometimes still falling so short that they're going without having their basic needs met."

Goldrick-Rab believes that governments at both the state and federal levels should collaborate to help students find a place to live as well as food so that they will be ready to learn and, eventually, to graduate.

"Most people think, 'Well, if you're really poor, and you really don't have money to eat, you can get food stamps," she said. "What they don't know is that for a college student, who doesn't have children, to get food stamps requires that they work 20 hours a week."

And this is what the first-year Bunker Hill student has done. She works 20 hours per week at a nearby physics lab and has now saved enough money to rent an apartment with two roommates. However, she says that she still needs help to afford tuition and transportation.

"I don't really need a whole lot of this or that. It's nice, but what helps me the most is people thinking that I'm going to make it," she said, as well as her classmates and professors who let her feel like a normal college student.

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