Basic Needs Insecurity in Higher Education: A Continuing Challenge
Since 2008, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab has examined food and housing insecurity among the nation’s undergraduates. We initially focused on Wisconsin, assessing prevalence of basic needs challenges in two samples of students—a cohort of Pell Grant recipients entering the state’s 42 public colleges and universities in fall 2008, and a cohort of low- and moderate-income students entering 10 public and private colleges and universities in 2012.3 Then we expanded to consider these challenges at colleges around the nation. Since there is no nationally representative survey of undergraduates that measures food or housing insecurity, surveying samples of students at colleges is the only option.4 This has been a major challenge.5 Limited finances and legal restrictions make it difficult to collect data from multiple colleges while obtaining high response rates. We would prefer to offer students strong monetary incentives and draw representative subsamples of students to focus the surveys on, but lack both the money and the data required. Therefore, we field inexpensive e-surveys and send them to each college’s entire population of undergraduates. The low response rates (often south of 10%) trouble us, but the estimates are likely conservative—our surveys do not explicitly recruit hungry or homeless students, and we expect that they have far less time or energy to give up for surveys. However, we leave that assessment to our readers—simply publishing the results as they arrive with as much transparency as possible, and continuing year after year to provide each college and university with its own data. We also continue to call on the National Center for Education Statistics to assess basic needs security on their nationally representative studies of undergraduates, and ask that other surveys of students include these questions as well.6 This report is about our third national survey. In 2015 we worked with the Association of Community College Trustees (ACCT) and invited all 1,200 of their members to do the survey. In total, 10 community colleges in 7 states accepted, and just over 4,000 students completed the questions. In 2016, we again partnered with ACCT, and 70 of their members responded, coming from 24 states, with a few repeats from 2015. More than 33,000 students completed that survey. In 2017, we opened the invitation up to any college or university, 2-year or 4-year, public or private, offering to support their efforts to address students’ basic needs by collecting data to inform their practices. This year’s survey is a purely voluntary, non-random sample, and includes 66 colleges and universities, including 31 community colleges and 35 4-year colleges and universities from 20 states and Washington, D.C. In total, 43,000 students responded, including over 20,000 in the 4-year sector. This is, therefore, the largest national assessment of basic needs security among 4-year students.