Digest No. 05 - October 2018

Exploring Food and Housing Insecurity among Undergraduates

Broton, K. M., and S. Goldrick-Rab. 2018. “Going Without: An Exploration of Food and Housing Insecurity among Undergraduates.” Educational Researcher 47 (2): 121–133.


As college costs rise and the wealth of many American families remains stagnant, the hidden burdens of being a college student increase. For many students, these involve food and housing insecurities. The authors analyze data on this topic from four surveys, administered to more than 30,000 two- and four-year college students, in a time frame spanning 2016–2018. Although most students in the sample attended community colleges, the sample includes four-year college students from low- and moderate-income families in Wisconsin and undergraduates from all of Wisconsin’s 42 public two- and four-year institutions. Food and housing insecurities were assessed through responses to empirically validated surveys and a series of interviews. Respondents were asked questions such as whether they had gone a whole day without eating due to lack of money or whether they were homeless, including those in both sheltered (for example, living temporarily with friends or family) and unsheltered (living in cars or abandoned buildings) situations. The authors performed mostly descriptive analyses on the data to describe the prevalence of college food and housing insecurity and information on how students cope with these challenges.

The data presentation reviews the four surveys’ results as evidence for claims offered regarding students’ food and housing insecurities. The authors explain the nuances of results for each data collection effort and offer discussion points based on an overview of the four studies. The discussion of findings here is based on these points but focuses mostly on the four-year college students the authors included as part of their sample.


“Despite variation in methodology and study samples, we found that many students are struggling with economic precarity such that they do not have the security or predictability of basic material welfare” (p. 128). With regard to food insecurity, more than half of the two- and four-year college students reported problems obtaining food that sometimes disrupted their eating patterns or forced them to reduce their food intake and go hungry.

Housing insecurity was more prevalent among two-year college students than their four-year peers. That said, the authors note that—among four-year students in their samples—“at least 1 in 10 and up to 1 in 5 indicated that they were housing insecure” (p. 128). The authors expand this analysis by explaining that housing insecure students “most commonly report affordability challenges related to an inability to pay the rent and/or utilities” (p. 128). In addition, the authors said that 2 percent of the total four-year college student sample indicated that they were homeless or had been over the past year, with homelessness defined as “being formally or informally thrown out of the home; not having a place to sleep at night; or staying in abandoned buildings, cars, or other places not meant for human habitation.”


CIC members should be aware that their students may experience food and housing insecurities. Given the shame often associated with these experiences, campus leaders need to consider how to provide places where students can freely discuss problems and receive immediate help. As the authors note—citing Daugherty, Johnston, and Tsai (2016) and Goldrick-Rab, Broton, and Hernandez (2017)—material hardship challenges are disruptive and have been documented to affect well-being as well as degree attainment.
Some institutions have made available small allocations of emergency funding as resources for faculty and staff members to help students with material hardship. These monies should not be considered loans nor difficult to administer. At the very least, faculty and staff members should know where to turn to help students address these concerns.

About the Authors

Katherine M. Broton is assistant professor of higher education in the Department of Educational Policy and Leadership Studies and Sociology (by courtesy) at the University of Iowa.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University.

Literature Readers May Wish to Consult

Daugherty, L., W. Johnston, and T. Tsai. 2016. Connecting College Students to Alternative Sources of Support: The Single Stop Community College Initiative and Postsecondary Outcomes. Santa Monica: RAND Corporation.

Goldrick-Rab, S. 2016. Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Goldrick-Rab, S., K. Broton, and D. Hernandez. 2017. Addressing Basic Needs Security in Higher Education: An Introduction to Three Evaluations of Supports for Food and Housing at Community Colleges. Madison: Wisconsin HOPE Lab.