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Getting real about hunger and homelessness on campus

New data show housing and food insecurity is a pressing issue for many college students across the country — and in Denver

May 9, 2019

By Cory Phare

Nearly half of students attending a four year college have experienced housing insecurity in the past year, according to a new report.

The finding was part of the National #RealCollege Survey Report, published by The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University. It found that 48% of students experienced housing insecurity in the past year and 14% experienced homelessness.

At Metropolitan State University of Denver, new data show basic-needs insecurity experienced by students is an even larger and more pressing issue.

A University-specific survey, led in conjunction with The Hope Center by associaite professor of nutrition Melissa Masters, Ph.D., found that 70% of 871 respondents experienced some form of basic-needs insecurity in the past year, 62% encountered housing insecurity, 44% reported food insecurity and 17% reported experiencing homelessness.

“There’s a perfect storm of under-resourced students from under-resourced families in under-resourced institutions of higher education,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, Ph.D., founder of The Hope Center and professor of higher education policy at Temple University. She presented the #RealCollege Survey Report at MSU Denver on April 26.

There’s a college graduation problem on our campuses, but more than that there’s a well-being problem, Goldrick-Rab said.

“When every decision is fundamentally about whether or not you have money, it changes your decision-making process,” she said. 

"We have college graduation problems, but more than that we have well-being problems... if we
"We have college graduation problems, but more than that we have well-being problems... if we're going to change the outcomes, we have to change the conversation," said Sarah Goldrick-Rab, Ph.D., founder of the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice at Temple University. She visited MSU Denver recently to share findings from the 2018 #RealCollege survey. Photo by Sara Hertwig

Addressing awareness

The MSU Denver-specific findings didn’t surprise Kelli Frank, director for behavioral intervention and student conduct in the University’s Department of Student Engagement and Wellness.

“I have the honor of working with resilient Roadrunners every day who face unimaginable life circumstances,” she said.

Still, Frank said it was humbling to learn that college students across the nation are also facing housing and food insecurity at such high rates. The data reflect complex, historic and deeply fractured social systems, she said, noting that students of color face even greater disparities in college success.

“As the (Hope Center) data reminds us, when you are experiencing one type of insecurity, you’re at risk of facing other forms of insecurity,” she said.

Students are often reluctant to “out” themselves as experiencing basic-needs insecurity due to shame, embarrassment or lack of resource knowledge, Frank said.

To overcome the stigmatization accompanying self-reported homelessness, the #RealCollege Survey Report counted as homeless students who reported “couch surfing” or living in a non-permanent residence, such as a car, camper or space not meant for human habitation. Only 3% of national respondents self-reported homelessness, but with the adjusted metrics, the report found 14% experienced homelessness.

One of the most important challenges in addressing basic-needs insecurity is awareness, said Randi Smith, Ph.D., professor of psychology at MSU Denver whose scholarship involves extensive work with homelessness in college populations.

“In the five years since I started collecting data, I’ve had so many people say to me how shocked they are that college students are homeless. Addressing that doesn’t fix the problem, but recognition goes a long way toward creating understanding.”

Frank echoed Smith’s sentiment, noting the precarious nature of many students when it comes to basic needs.

“Yes, we have populations of students who are homeless right now, who are in true crisis,” she said. “But how many are also just one paycheck away from losing their housing? How many have parents facing deportation and are now tasked with caring for their siblings?”

"We didn
"We didn't create the problem (of food and housing insecurity), but we have a role to play in fixing it." Sarah Goldbrick-Rab discusses University-specific results from the 2018 #RealCollege survey in St. Cajetan's Events Center in a recent visit. Photo by Sara Hertwig.

Student-centered solutions

There are no easy solutions to the complex systemic challenges faced by today’s students. However, Goldrick-Rab shared several student-centered approaches she sees working at universities across the country.

Finding solutions starts with faculty and administrators using critical inquiry to change existing systems, she said. Universities must also bridge campus-to-community resources and couch every decision with an individual-centered perspective.

“The key is making a warm hand-off,” she said. “Building and keeping trust is critical. And we don’t all have to be social workers in higher education, but we should all know one.”

Other approaches are less complicated, she said. For instance, simply sharing support information available to students on a syllabi puts that information front and center.

At MSU Denver, the CARE Team is a wraparound service that has been a successful in addressing the challenges facing students. It provides students a case manager who can help them address the multiple domains that contribute to – and result from – housing and/or food insecurity.

The CARE reporting system is identifying struggling students and reaching out to them to provide comprehensive assistance, Frank explained. This outreach could include connection to resources such as the University’s Student Emergency Fund or the developing Low-income Student Success Team for collective advocacy. The Roadrunner Food Pantry will help students find a meal and can also connect them to community partners fighting hunger – and food waste.

“Wraparound services help address the multifaceted challenges our students face," Frank said. "They’re also dignifying and critical for navigating public and private models of support.”

Navigating those systems is crucial – for humanitarian implications, but also the economic considerations of billions in investment dollars potentially at risk by college students not meeting basic needs, as a recent U.S. Government Accountability Office report noted.

“We didn’t create (these issues) as higher education professionals, but we have a role in fixing it,” Goldrick-Rab said. “We can and must do better.”

Read the 2018 #RealCollege University-specific survey results for MSU Denver


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