- Interview by
- Doug Henwood
We’ve long heard about student debt, which now totals $1.8 trillion, or half a trillion more than all the credit card debt outstanding. What’s gotten less attention are the economic challenges that students face while in college, notably getting enough to eat and keeping a roof over their heads.
Sara Goldrick-Rab has been studying this topic for about twenty years. She’s a sociologist and founder of the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. The numbers she comes up with are disturbing. For example, one in four undergraduates and one in eight graduate students face food insecurity. That’s worth considering at a time when elite colleges attract so much media attention.
Before we get to your work, we’ve been hearing a lot about access to elite institutions because of that Opportunity Insights paper on elite institutions and wealthy applicants. Any thoughts on that in light of your work?
American higher education and the discourse around it is incredibly centered on this idea that there are a few colleges that everyone needs to go to and that it’s really hard to get access to them and afford them.
That’s the wrong message. We have over four thousand colleges and universities, most of which are very worth attending, and the vast majority of them do not require you to do cartwheels and cheat and get really high test scores and all of these other things to get in.
This message is pitched toward people who already hold the vast majority of the wealth and power in this country and who in turn dominate the talk. They also, unfortunately, set the standards. So a good parent in this country is thought to be somebody who puts aside a bunch of money every year to save for college, and is willing to have their child do all of these things to try to get into a handful of colleges that educate less than 1 percent of all students.
We have an awful lot of fine public institutions — though they’re getting to be priced more and more like private ones — but they need some nurturance and attention.
Exactly right. And they used to be less expensive when states actually put money into them. Legislators have found it very easy to say, when they need to cut the budget to fund something else, we’re going to pass the buck onto your family.
And also, people blame the colleges, which makes it an incredibly difficult situation — they hate on the colleges for the high prices rather than hating on the legislators and voting for somebody else.
Let’s turn to your work: housing and food challenges for college students. Where did you get your data?
Back in 2008, I was doing a study looking at how students who didn’t come from money were navigating college. I asked one of those students, “How are things going?” And she said, “I’m not okay. I haven’t eaten in several days.” I went to go look and see whether this was an anomaly, but there were virtually no data. Over the next ten years, I kept looking and kept finding nothing.
Starting in about 2015, I began a systematic survey where I recruited colleges and eventually states because the federal government wasn’t doing it. And we did it over and over, and other researchers started doing it, and we started demanding that the federal government ask these questions. In the spring of 2020, for the very first time ever, the federal government asked these questions, and that matters because it’s a nationally representative survey with a giant budget to get high response rates. So we have better scientific data than we’ve ever had. And it just came out [this summer].
The spring of 2020 — that’s when COVID hit. Did that distort the data?
It’s representative of an unusual time. But I will tell you, because I had been collecting data for many years, that I collected it from the same kinds of institutions that had been willing for years, and we didn’t see major jumps or changes in the numbers.
Part of the reason is because the students who were at the most risk of these challenges left college, so we couldn’t even survey them. The other thing is that a whole bunch of additional resources poured in because of the pandemic, and so some people got more help than they would normally. Those things seem to balance each other out.
Of course, it’s possible that the pandemic is totally adjusting these numbers, and we will hope that the next time they do the survey we will start to see these numbers go down.
Define food insecurity.
Food insecurity for college students is being defined the same exact way it is for any other adult. So it’s about your ability to afford regular access to food so you can eat on a daily basis.
There are people who are never worried about whether they’re going to be able to afford to eat. Then there are people who worry, but they do still make ends meet. Neither of those groups of people are being counted here as food insecure.
People who are food insecure are doing things like cutting the size of their meals or skipping meals because they can’t afford to eat enough. They’re not eating what one might call healthy meals, although that’s really not the emphasis here. This is really about your ability to eat every day.
In some of the most severe circumstances, we are seeing people who are going a day or more without eating. In some cases, that leads you to lose weight; in other cases, you actually gain weight because the food you are eating is really cheap and bad for you.
So we don’t like to call this purely “hunger,” partly because for people who go through it a lot, they don’t necessarily always feel the hunger anymore because they’ve gotten so used to it. But it is adversely affecting their health, and it’s also affecting how they’re doing in school.
What were your findings?
What we find from the national numbers is that 23 percent, almost one in four, undergraduates in this country and 12 percent of graduate students have been experiencing food insecurity at least within the time of that survey. That is approximately 4.5 million students.
I was somewhat surprised by this. I thought that college students come generally from a more affluent portion of the population. These are very large numbers.
Yeah, they’re not larger than what I had been finding for years. They’re actually a little bit lower.
Here’s the thing: when you say you tend to think of college students as affluent, you probably also tend to think about college students as the kind of people who live on university campuses in dormitories. And most people don’t. The vast majority of college students now live off campus — sometimes with parents, but often in their own place.
About 75 percent go to community colleges or regional public state colleges or universities — so not the big flagships, but places that accept most or all of those who apply. And they live lives like other adults in this country, meaning yes, they’re in classes, but they’re also working; more than one in five of them is raising a child of their own, and they are really struggling on a daily basis to make ends meet.
Financial aid is not getting the job done. And when colleges tell us what their price is, in fact, the real price is a lot higher. And it’s those surprises that are contributing to this problem as well. For example, if you live in an off-campus apartment, your college is going to estimate your rent. But how does your college know what the landlords are charging in the area, and how does it know what your living situation is going to be? Maybe it decides that you’re going to have four roommates, but you’re a mom with a child. So your rent could well be higher than the average.
Or colleges might be estimating transportation costs. Maybe they think you’re taking the bus, but you have a disability and you’re not able to take the bus, and so you’re driving a car — your costs are higher than the average.
With colleagues, I have estimated how far off colleges and universities are in price estimations, and the fact is that they’re off by approximately 20 percent. So if you think that college costs are high, college costs are perhaps even 20 percent more than you might think.
What about demographic variations among the food insecure?
The first thing is that food-insecure students come from all types of backgrounds, not just from families that are very low income. In fact, we see it among students who are from well above the poverty line, too. So for example, 31 percent of students living below the poverty line deal with food insecurity, and so do 13 percent of students who are 300 percent or more above the poverty line.
Another thing we see is that working doesn’t seem to protect you. Students who are unemployed have a rate of food insecurity that’s about one in four, but students who are working twenty hours to almost full-time jobs have a very similar food insecurity rate — actually a little bit higher. We see this among people with children. We see this regardless of age. We see this across gender, we see this across race. No one seems to really be protected from it, though some people are at exceptionally high risk.
So for example, people who are what we would call non-Hispanic white, who may not deal with as much discrimination in this society — 18 percent of those students are dealing with food insecurity. The rate is nearly double for black students, at 35 percent. Nonetheless, I wouldn’t call 18 percent small.
No, that’s almost one in five. That’s a big number. Now what about Pell Grant students versus non–Pell Grant students? Pell Grants are usually used as a proxy for poverty, right?
Exactly. So it’s 31 percent of Pell recipients and it’s 17 percent of non–Pell recipients. This is what concerns me — we say things like, you need financial help for college if you’re a Pell recipient. And certainly you do, but it seems that you also need help even if you’re not getting a Pell Grant.
Another staggering thing I think the average person would be surprised by is that 21 percent of students who are paying, after all grants and scholarships, $0 — not owing anything, according to the official numbers — are food insecure. What that tells you is that the official numbers are wrong. We’re overestimating what students can pay, and we’re underestimating their real costs.
What about housing and homelessness?
The federal government made the decision to collect information about homelessness but not about what we call housing insecurity, which in my data is as prevalent as food insecurity. Housing insecurity is when you’re not homeless yet, but you could be soon. So for example, you’re not able to pay your rent on time, you’re not able to pay your utilities.
The federal government data capture both sheltered and unsheltered homelessness, which means that in addition to people sleeping in their cars or on the street or in a shelter, what we’re mostly seeing here are people who are couch-surfing (not for fun, but as in trying to find somebody who will let you stay on their couch at the very least). And we find that 8 percent of undergraduate students and 5 percent of graduate students had experienced homelessness in the thirty days prior to the survey together. That adds up to about 1.5 million students.
And that’s just in the thirty days prior to the survey. If you looked over the course of a year or four years, I’m sure the numbers would be much higher.
They are. When I’ve collected these data, I have tended to collect both thirty days prior and a year prior. And yes, the year-prior numbers, I would add about a third onto these probably. So we’re looking at something more like 10, 11 percent.
How many people drop out of college purely for economic reasons?
While college students tell us that it happens all the time, and we do have reasons to believe them, we don’t have a way to know because the reasons that students drop out are complicated. For example, we’ll see students drop out because they’re not doing well in their classes, but the reason they’re not doing well is they’re struggling to pay their rent and so they’ve picked up extra hours at work and now they don’t have time to study. Do we say they dropped out because they had bad grades, or do we say that it was too expensive?
My studies, which have been going on for about twenty years, consistently show that we have students leaving college even with As and Bs, because the price is too high. We have a dropout rate in this country of around 50 percent. And I’m willing to say, after all my years of doing this, that probably at least two-thirds to three-quarters of that is because of a lack of affordability.
How do we solve these problems? Is it a function of the larger problem of poverty and hunger and homelessness in the United States, or is there something that could be specifically targeted toward college students?
Poverty is a factor here, but these rates of food and housing insecurity are actually higher than they are for the general population. So there are things that are specifically happening to college students. One of those things, like I’ve been saying, is bad prices and bad information. But another important problem is that the safety net often excludes college students. Food stamps, or SNAP, is much, much harder to get access to if you’re a college student. Same thing goes for low-income housing.
Ron DeSantis said the other day, talking about student debt relief, why should a truck driver pay for somebody who got a degree in gender studies? I’m sure you hear that kind of caricature a lot, but what would your response be?
Truck drivers today have a lot of student debt because truck driver training costs money, and truck driver training happens at the nation’s community colleges (and for-profit colleges, which charge them even more).
So I don’t know the last time Ron DeSantis actually went to a college, particularly one of the many community colleges across Florida, and actually looked at what they do. But there are far more people pursuing vocational programs like HVAC and truck driver training than there are in what he’s calling gender studies.
Finally, there’s been a lot of talk lately that college just isn’t worth it, you just end up in a whole lot of debt. Is college worth it in general?
People who go to college live longer, live healthier lives, and are much more economically stable than people who don’t.
The problem is that we have allowed the price to rise so high that now we start to say, it’s not affordable, therefore it’s not worth it. But that’s a choice. It’s not a fact. We can make a different choice and make the price of college low enough that it reduces the risk of doing something that we all think is important.
We used to talk about whether it would be worth it to make high school free, and it’s hard to imagine now what would happen if people only went through elementary and middle school and didn’t go to high school.
It’s worth giving people the chance to live longer, healthier lives through learning. And I don’t say that as a professor. I say that as a human being, and I say that as a scientist, and I say that as mom.