Why College Students Face Hunger

March 3, 2020 / 5 mins read

Many of us remember being “broke” college students with tight grocery budgets and knowledge of all the best student discounts. But for the 39 percent of U.S. undergrads who are low-income, affording food and housing is more than just living on a limited budget—it’s a huge challenge. With over 20 million college students in America alone, this means that millions of college students are at risk of facing hunger.

College students are trying to better their lives through education. But for students facing hunger, having to also deal with the tough decision of paying for tuition or groceries makes it even harder to balance work and school. Rising tuition and housing costs, financial independence, and accessibility to food are all reasons many college students are facing hunger.

What happens when college students can’t afford food

For low-income college students, hunger can have lasting physical and mental effects. These students frequently skip meals or going without food. Without enough food to fuel long days of classes and long nights of studying, students are more likely to have a lower grade point average than students who don’t have to worry about having enough food. Students facing hunger are also more likely to report their overall health as being “poor,” and struggle with depression.

Five reasons students on college campuses are struggling to afford food

1. Rising tuition costs. College is more expensive than ever. Adjusted for inflation, the cost of college increased by more than 25% in the last 10 years. Even though most students are working part-time or full-time jobs while in school, tuition and room & board have become too expensive for many students to pay for on their own.

2. College meal plans are expensive. The average college meal plan costs about $4,500 per year or $18.75 per day for a three-meal-a-day plan that covers the eight months or so of a typical academic year. Many colleges require students to have a meal plan if they plan to live on campus. That’s a lot to pay for when your financial resources are limited.

3. Even when you have a meal plan, food isn’t always available. When dining halls close, low-income students often struggle to find affordable food. According to a study from Harvard, many students can’t afford to go home or take the time off work during school breaks when the majority of college dining halls close. And college campuses often don’t have affordable options for groceries nearby, especially if students don’t have their own car.

4. The “traditional” college student is changing. Over the years, the proportion of “non-traditional” college students to “traditional” students has grown. This includes students who are financially independent, enrolled part-time in school while working full-time, or did not receive a traditional high school diploma. Students aren’t starting college right after high school, with the average age of college students being 26.

This changing face of the average college student brings new challenges. 1 in 5 students is caring for a child and many as single parents. Between rising tuition costs, parenting, and working full-time, making ends meet can be tough.

5. Colleges don’t know students are going hungry. Even though so many students struggle, many college administrators think of hunger on campus as an uncommon exception. Because low-income students often can’t afford meal plans (which on average run $4,500 per year,) administrators are mostly exposed to students who can afford to eat on campus.

College students shouldn't have to worry about when their next meal will be. Together, we can help college students facing hunger.

This article was originally posted on February 19, 2020, and written by Olivia Thoelke


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