More about today’s student

For most of today’s low-income students, the impact of unmet financial need begins at home and ripples into the classroom. Indirect costs are estimated to make up 60 percent of the total cost of attending college,43 and three critical cost items – food, housing, and child care – significantly threaten many students’ ability to persist in and complete college. Many students sacrifice necessities – including textbooks, computers, or other key supplies – to make ends meet. Some incur personal debt to pay for recurring expenses like rent and utilities. Some are hungry, homeless, or both.

The combined weight of these pressures demands much of these students’ attention, increases their stress levels and compromises their ability to focus on coursework. Subsequently, financial stressors lead many students to make choices that undermine their progress toward completion or cause them to drop out altogether.

Consider the following facts:

  • Only 11 percent of students living below the poverty level graduate within six years.44
  • 38 percent of students with additional work, financial or family obligations leave school in their first year.45
  • 53 percent of student parents leave school with no degree.46
  • 77 percent of individuals from high-income families have a bachelor’s degree by age 24, compared to only 9 percent of individuals from the lowest-income quartile.47
  • High-performing low-income students are less likely to graduate than their low-performing but high-income peers.48

While not always the case, many low-income students are among the first in their families to attend college. This lack of knowledge and coping strategies often increases low-income students’ struggles to select appropriate courses, find financial supports, or seek other assistance. But there is a significant infrastructural issue as well: most of today’s colleges are simply not aligned to serve today’s students well.

The promise and benefits of postsecondary degrees and credentials have not changed, but a generation of changing demographics has led to a new normal in postsecondary education. The success of today’s students, and those who come after them, is a vital part of America’s future success. It is imperative that postsecondary institutions, their partners, and students work together to seal the cracks in America’s postsecondary pipeline.

Food and Housing Insecurity

Two major issues affecting low-income students are food insecurity and housing instability. Food insecurity is defined as the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or an inability to acquire such foods in socially acceptable ways. Recent data indicate that 14 percent of American households experience food insecurity each year – and that, among college students, food insecurity may actually be four times that amount.49

Housing instability, which also exists along a spectrum where homelessness – that is, lack of a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence – represents the extreme case. Unaffordable housing, poor housing quality, crowding, and frequent moves are other dimensions of housing insecurity. The number of college students who experience food insecurity is largely unknown, and the number of homeless students is underreported, since students must provide proof of homelessness to be designated as homeless.

According to a Wisconsin HOPE Lab survey of more than 4,000 undergraduates at 10 community colleges, half of all community college students are struggling with food and/or housing security. The California State University system conducted a similar study and found that 21-24 percent of students are food insecure, while between 8 percent and 12 percent live in unstable housing situations. Studies have found that students who experience food or housing instability report high levels of stress, which can affect their cognitive functioning.

Next: Campus-based exemplars »