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Students take inventory in preparation of the opening of the Open Seat Food Pantry at UW-Madison in 2016. Research by the now closed Wisconsin HOPE Lab documented the need for food and housing assistance among students at colleges and universities across the country.

College and university students aim to get educations to improve their lot in life. But a survey released Tuesday found that while they’re enrolled, about half of them have trouble putting food on the table and finding a stable place to live.

“This report is the latest to suggest a widespread basic needs security crisis diminishing the college completion prospects of millions of students,” Sara Goldrick-Rab, director of Temple University’s Hope Center, said in a press release announcing the survey’s findings. “Despite sizable evidence of need, students are still not receiving adequate government support.”

The report is a continuation of Goldrick-Rab's work at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which she left in 2016. The Wisconsin Hope Lab closed last summer after its funding ran out.

But the lab’s mission to highlight the plight of cash-strapped students struggling through their college years continues with the Temple University project.

Tuesday’s report is the result of input by 86,000 students at 123 colleges and universities in 24 states. The University of Wisconsin, which Goldrick-Rab left after Republican lawmakers removed tenure protections, was not represented. Madison College was also not included. 

But in 2017, the Madison College Student Senate conducted a survey of 1,144 students at Madison College that found that one third of students had skipped meals because they couldn’t afford to eat, and one fourth had gone at least one entire day without food.

The student pool in the study released Tuesday was heavily weighted toward colleges on the east and west coasts, with a smattering of institutions in the deep south, the Chicago area and other Midwest locales.

The study found that 45 percent of students surveyed reported experiencing food insecurity within the past year, ranging from worries about being able to afford food to skipping meals for at least an entire day because of lack of money. Nearly half said they couldn’t afford to eat balanced meals.

Only one-fifth of food-insecure students received food stamps.

The survey found that 56 percent of students experienced housing insecurity, with 30 percent saying they struggled with rent increases and 3 percent saying they had been summoned to housing court for lack of payment. Nineteen percent said they’d defaulted or gone to collections, and 4 percent reported having moved three or more times.

Seventeen percent reported being homeless in the past year.

The inability to sustain dependable living quarters and diets has profound, long-term impacts on student’s ability to succeed in post-secondary school, the report says.

“Housing insecurity and homelessness have a particularly strong, statistically significant relationship with college completion rates, persistence, and credit attainment,” the report says. “Researchers also associate basic needs insecurity with self-reports of poor physical health, symptoms of depression, and higher perceived stress.”

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The problems were felt disproportionately across racial, ethnic and gender divides, with minorities, women and LGBTQ students struggling more with basic needs than white males. Those attending two-year colleges as opposed to four-year institutions also fared worse.

But the vast majority don’t take advantage public assistance available to them.

Only about 20 percent of food insecure students collected food stamps, and only 7 percent of students who had been homeless at some point received housing assistance.

The report suggests a number of remedies. The authors urge institutions to appoint a director of student wellness and basic needs to oversee case management, serve as a point of contact for homeless students and help student connect with government services.

The report also suggests enlisting proactive community and private-sector support to prevent crises before they develop, developing an emergency aid program, and taking a more active approach in connecting students with government resources.

It also urges a change in campus culture to make meeting the basic needs of students a systemwide priority.

“Isolating basic needs into a single office, without broad campus support for a ‘culture of caring,’ limits efficacy,” the report says.

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Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.