Last fall, students at two of the nation’s premier historically black colleges, Spelman and Morehouse, went on a hunger strike. They weren’t protesting policymakers in Washington. They were pressuring their schools to allow students to donate unused meal plan vouchers to those on campus who needed them.
These students recognized a real problem, one that plagues all sorts of colleges and universities, especially the community colleges and state schools that most Americans attend.
An estimated half of all college students struggle with food insecurity, even at elite flagship universities like the University of California, Berkeley, and selective private schools like Northwestern University. Former foster youth, L.G.B.T. students and students of color are at substantially increased risk. Food insecurity is strongly linked to lower graduation rates.
The new economics of college led us into this mess. The cost of higher education is at an all-time high, which is in sharp contrast to the declining income and wealth of most American families. And while a college degree is no guarantee of employment, it still greatly increases the odds of a middle-class life. It makes sense that students work hard to go to college to achieve stability, and it is tragic that many fail to complete degrees because they cannot escape poverty long enough to focus on their studies.
But what is happening today is very different. For decades, many students survived on little to afford college. But over time, the situation worsened to the point where now, hunger and homelessness routinely undermine students’ very ability to learn. Even though a far greater percentage of college students qualify for financial aid than in the past, colleges and states have fewer dollars per student to allocate to them.
Students can’t trust in a government safety net, either. It used to be the case that relatively few low-income women with children attended college, but those who did could receive welfare while in school. Today, one in four college students have a child, and yet most of these parents can’t get aid (or affordable child care) because of federal work requirements that require them to work 20 to 30 hours a week to get cash assistance.
Food stamps have onerous requirements, too. Students without children who qualify for food stamps often cannot receive them without working 20 hours a week on top of going to school. While that might sound easy, it isn’t — students are competing in a difficult job market for part-time, low-wage jobs. They are at a disadvantage because they lack flexibility and, often, experience. And through all of this, the value of the real minimum wage continues to decline. No wonder so many children are growing up in poverty.
In New York, where a forthcoming study by researchers at the City University of New York reports that 30 percent of community college students and 22 percent of four-year college students are food insecure, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo recently proposed that every public college open a free campus food pantry. This is a modest but welcome step, since even mere acknowledgment of the problem among top policymakers is rare.
The first federal briefing on college food insecurity took place just last month, and Gov. Jerry Brown of California is the only state leader to put substantial funding toward the problem, with a $7.5 million investment.
But while quick fixes are useful for the students who need food now, they are not long-term, preventive solutions. Charitable donations of cans of food and cartons of milk must be supplemented with changes to how food is distributed and priced on campus, and access to the SNAP food stamp program should be broadened for students.
Colleges themselves have a responsibility to do better, and they can take a cue from their students. The hunger strikers at Spelman and Morehouse were part of a growing coalition of youth who have joined Swipe Out Hunger, a nonprofit that advocates donating unused meal credits. Spelman and Morehouse both agreed to allocate 14,000 free meals per year to students in need. Bunker Hill Community College in Boston is one of several schools that now distribute meal vouchers, and Houston Community College is providing grocery scholarships.
Fundamentally, financial aid must be reformed to address the real price of college, which cannot be calculated without factoring in food and shelter. Living expenses are educational expenses.
After all, it’s impossible to learn when you’re starving.