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It’s On Us to Help Low-Income Students Succeed in College

Last year, in a New York Times op-ed, college student Brooke Evans shared a story that quickly became a wake-up call for university leaders.

“Without a home and without meals, I felt like an impostor. I was shamefully worrying about food, and shamefully staring at the clock to make it out of class in time to get in line for the local shelter when I should have been giving my undivided attention to the lecturer.”

Now take a step back, and think about how you’d feel if you were Ms. Evans. Everyone who’s been to college has experienced stress at one point or another. Being unable to afford food and housing, however, is hardship on a completely different level.

Unfortunately, Ms. Evans is not an outlier. Survey data show that about 13 percent of college students are homeless, and one in five experience food insecurity. Only 58 percent of students at four-year public institutions graduate within six years. Students are literally dropping out of school for want of food, and many cannot access federal benefits like SNAP because they have difficulty meeting the work requirements while leaving sufficient time to study. In the words of a student at George Mason University: “I spend more time thinking ‘How am I going to make some money so I can go eat?’ and I focus on that when I should be doing homework or studying for a test.”

The Pell grant, intended to help low-income students afford college, is hardly a panacea. According to research from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, a student’s Pell grant would cover nearly three-quarters of the cost of attending a public four-year university in 1980. Today, it only covers about a third. Consequently, 90 percent of Pell grant recipients end up taking on debt. Many of them never complete a degree or certificate, making their student debt even more difficult to pay off.

If government-backed loans and social programs are failing to keep our students out of poverty, what will? Fortunately, there are some steps that university leaders can take in the short term to mitigate the challenges low-income students face on their campuses.

In my book Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, I offer a range of solutions that university leaders can pursue, including:

  1. Start by listening to students. Behaviors that we often dismiss as character flaws, such as skipping class or failing to read the textbook, can be symptoms of a larger problem like financial stress. Understanding the reasons why students are struggling is a necessary first step to helping them overcome these barriers.

  2. Assess students’ basic needs and target those at risk. In addition to academic preparation, meeting basic needs such as food, housing, and sleep are key determinants of students’ readiness to learn.

  3. Leverage local and national partners to fill in gaps in services. For example, participating in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will help address food insecurity by allowing students to use their benefits to purchase food on campus. A small number of colleges and universities have taken this step, for example Oregon State University. Other local entities, such as food banks, housing authorities, and community-based clinics can help the university meet students’ basic needs.

We cannot ignore the challenges low-income students face on our campuses. These students need us to take the lead – and soon.  By listening to students, understanding their struggles, and taking short-term actions to address gaps in support services, we can move forward toward a higher education system where intellect and hard work – not ability to pay – is what matters most.


Sara Goldrick-Rab is a professor of higher-­education policy and sociology at Temple University, and founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. Her new book, Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, is available for Kindle and in hardcover from, and from the University of Chicago Press Books.


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