Goldrick-Rab’s Wisconsin HOPE Lab releases new report, ‘Hungry to Learn’

UW-Madison’s Sara Goldrick-Rab is the lead author of a new report titled, “Hungry to Learn: Addressing Food & Housing Insecurity Among Undergraduates.”

The paper begins by noting: “According to a new survey of more than 4,000 undergraduates at 10 community colleges across the nation, half of all community college students are struggling with food and/or housing insecurity. Fully 20 percent are hungry and 13 percent are homeless. These numbers are startling and indicate the need for a multi-pronged, comprehensive set of institutional, state, and local policies to alleviate the barriers presented by poverty, so as to improve educational success.”

Goldrick-Rab is a faculty member with the School of Education’s Department of Educational Policy Studies and is the director and founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which is the only laboratory in the nation dedicated to translational research for improving equitable outcomes in postsecondary education. The HOPE Lab released the paper in partnership with the annual web-based Healthy Minds Study at the University of Michigan, the Association of Community College Trustees, and Single Stop.

The report is co-authored by Katharine Broton, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Sociology at UW-Madison and a research assistant with the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, and Daniel Eisenberg, an associate professor of Health Management and Policy at the University of Michigan and the principal investigator of The Healthy Minds Network.

The paper explains: “Most undergraduates who have left college without degrees indicate that financial reasons are a key cause. Tuition is rising faster than inflation, medical care costs, or need-based financial aid. And tuition is but one contributor to the cost of a college degree — students must also purchase books and supplies, pay for transportation to get to classes, and cover living expenses. These costs are growing quickly as well. The result is that students from low- and moderate-income families often have a high price to pay, even after grants and scholarships are distributed.

“What happens when individuals who are economically insecure enroll in college and face costs that are beyond their reach? Researchers at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab who are studying this question have learned that a growing number of low-income undergraduates experience food and housing insecurity, even when students work and receive financial aid.”

Numerous media outlets are now reporting on the study and its findings:

• Inside Higher Ed posted a story headlined, “House and Home: Study finds hundreds of students at 10 different community colleges reported homelessness, food insecurity or both.” And in an Inside Higher Ed blog post, Matt Reed writes: “The key step, for which I commend Goldrick-Rab and Broton, is getting past the stereotype of the ‘coddled’ student. In the community college world, most students aren’t coddled; many are dangerously close to economic disaster. It’s hard to focus on homework and exams when you need to find a warm place to sleep that night. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs isn’t perfect, but it gets at something basic and true; if you’re hungry, you aren’t doing your best work. As a society, we could choose to fix this. If we need an educated workforce — and we do — then we need to make sure that students are in a position to learn. First things first.  Thank you, Sara Goldrick-Rab and Katharine Broton, for calling attention to reality. Now it’s up to us, all of us, to change it.”

• PBS Newshour headlined its report, “Think finals are tough? Real challenge for growing number of college students is getting enough to eat.”

• The Houston Chronicle published a story headlined, “Community college students struggle with hunger, poverty, study finds.” That article explains how “people struggling with homelessness typically are hard to reach for surveys, especially electronically, so the number of students facing these problems could be much higher than reflected in the survey, Goldrick-Rab said.” “What’s staggering to me is that I think these numbers may be really low,” Goldrick-Rab tells the Chronicle. “The schools and frankly the country does not have its head around what it means to address this … you have to do something much more systematic.”

• MarketWatch ran a report headlined, “Half of community college students struggle to find housing, food.” That report begins: “In the American imagination, higher education is supposed to be a ticket to a better life. But even for a large share of students who make it to college, poverty can be hard to escape, because its trappings plague them through school.”

• And the Capital Times newspaper posted a story headlined, “UW survey finds half of community college students risk hunger, homelessness.”

Meanwhile, Goldrick-Rab is the co-author of a Dec. 4 New York Times op-ed titled, “Hungry, Homeless and in College,” which utilizes information from the new HOPE Lab report. The Times op-ed, co-authored by Broton, concludes by noting: “From President Obama on down, our political leaders are urging people to do the right thing and stay in college. Students are trying — so hard that they sometimes go hungry to learn. When will we match their level of determination? A college education is a great tool for overcoming poverty, but students have to be able escape the conditions of poverty long enough to finish their degrees or we’re wasting their time.”

In addition, Goldrick-Rab says she shared the new report with staff members of U.S. Senators Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin and Bernie Sanders of Vermont during a visit to Washington, D.C., Dec. 1-2. Goldrick-Rab adds that she also went to the White House with UW-Madison undergraduate Brooke Evans, who was once a homeless student, and further discussed the report with higher education officials and members of the Domestic Policy Council.

Goldrick-Rab also is a Senior Scholar with the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education and an affiliate of the Institute for Research on Poverty, Center for Financial Security, La Follette School of Public Affairs, and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

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