College is getting so expensive that students worry about having enough money to eat

  • College tuition costs have risen and student meal plans are more expensive than what the average American spends on food.
  • More than one-third of college students worried about not having money to eat or skipped meals in the past month, according to one survey.
  • A coalition of colleges and universities across the country have opened pantries and food banks for in-need students.

The rising cost of a college education is no secret; tuition, room and board, and textbooks aren’t cheap. But even meal plans are breaking the bank for many college students across the US.

Education-focused publication The Hechinger Report said earlier this year that college students around the country have trouble accessing affordable food and many skip meals or worry about where their next meal is coming from.

“The average college and university charges about $US4,500, or $US18.75 per day, for a three-meal-a-day dining contract,” according to The Hechinger Report’s Tara Garcia Mathewson. She noted that this is more than the $US11-a-day average reported by the Bureau of Labour Statistics for a single American.

The Wisconsin HOPE Lab, an organisation aimed at increasing economic equity for post-secondary education, recently released a study with harrowing results. A survey taken by 43,000 students at 66 2- and 4-year institutions in 20 states and Washington, DC, found that “36% of university students were food insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey.” For community college students, that share rose to 42%.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy at Temple University and one of the authors of the study, told NPR the effect of food insecurity for low-income students is varied.

“Their grades suffer, their test scores appear to be lower, and overall their chances of graduating are slimmer,” Goldrick-Rab said. “They can barely escape the conditions of poverty long enough to complete their degrees.”

Another study published in the Journal of Hunger & Environmental Nutrition suggests the situation is even more grim for college students in California, where 40% of students in the University of California system reported experiencing food insecurity.

Access to food affects students’ academic performance, and colleges are starting to help. The Michigan State Student Food Bank and the Oregon State University Food Pantry combined forces to create the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA).

According to their website, 613 colleges and universities are members of CFUBA, which is “focused on alleviating food insecurity, hunger, and poverty among college and university students in the United States.” These campus-led food pantries and banks provide resources to students that help alleviate hunger.

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