Press Release

Good morning. Thank you for the kind introduction and for inviting me to be a part of today’s important conversation on food and housing insecurity and homelessness in college. I also want to acknowledge Temple University and the College of Education, along with the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, for organizing this conference.

One of the most powerful experiences I had as Secretary of Education during the Obama administration was meeting with youth who had experienced homelessness. I remember one young woman, Gladys, who became homeless before she was old enough to drive or hold a job. She left home when she was 13 because life with her mother was too unstable. She talked about begging for food and water—and pleading with friends and classmates for a place to sleep. Despite those obstacles, Gladys was beating the odds and succeeding at the Pennsylvania College of Health Sciences—not too far from here in Lancaster—where she was studying to be a nurse. Just this weekend, I was emailing with Barbara Duffield at SchoolHouse Connection who introduced me to Gladys and she told me Gladys is on track to graduate this May. Gladys’ college story—although she experienced great adversity as a child—is one of success. Far too often though, the most vulnerable children can remain vulnerable when they become students on our college campuses. About one in eight households in America have some level of food insecurity. More than 1.3 million U.S. students in our public elementary and secondary schools were homeless in the 2013-2014 academic year.

So I’d like to start our conversation today with the notion that if we are to combat homelessness, and if we are to reduce housing and food insecurity in higher education, we also need to be concerned with what happens to students before they arrive at college. Recent research from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, for example, shows that some populations of disadvantaged children are at greater risk of housing insecurity once they reach college than others. The HOPE Lab discovered that former foster youth attending community college are much more likely to be homeless in college than youth who were not formerly involved in foster care. We must recognize that to truly address the challenges that are the subject of this conference—and to ensure that more students complete postsecondary education—solutions must exist across systems and across sectors.

Institutions of higher education are integral to that effort. Colleges and universities often have connections with community organizations, the city and town, service providers, local housing authorities, and transportation departments. As a result, institutions of higher education can be well positioned to partner with local elementary and secondary schools to help connect children and their families with vital wraparound, health, nutrition, and other support services. Colleges also can be helpful in training P-12 teachers so that they may best serve homeless and hungry students who have complex needs. These partnerships and connections are invaluable, and can help our most vulnerable students to be safer and healthier and to reach higher education better prepared to succeed. Reducing and even eliminating food and housing insecurity for our students must be a priority across the pipeline of education, from preschool through college. It is a formidable challenge, and it will take the effort of everyone working together.

At the college level, student homelessness and hunger used to be an invisible problem—but that has changed thanks in large part due to the research and scholarship of Sara Goldrick-Rab and others working hard to study these issues. The HOPE Lab’s most recent report, for example, provides an eye-opening look at basic needs insecurity at our nation’s community colleges. We now can see the pervasiveness of the problem—with the study revealing that two in three community college students are food insecure, about half are housing insecure, and nearly 14 percent are homeless. We now also can see that basic needs insecurity is not a challenge to solve only for colleges in urban centers or for those serving high populations of low-income students. And although community college students of color were over-represented among homeless graduates in the HOPE Lab study, the largest single racial group of students experiencing homelessness were White. This is a challenge that stretches across geographic and racial lines. This is a national challenge. And we need to learn even more about it.

I’m encouraged that, this year, the U.S. Government Accountability Office announced it will be undertaking the first-ever federal review of food insecurity in higher education. But we also need a large-scale, nationally representative study of basic needs insecurity on our college and university campuses. We need researchers to continue to look at community colleges and to examine four-year institutions. We need to better understand how students experience food and housing insecurity and homelessness. We need to better understand when and where they obtain help. And we need to analyze how needs insecurity affects students’ academic achievement, their probability of dropping out, and the time it takes to earn their degrees. Armed with this information, college faculty and staff, service providers, and others can develop even more effective interventions. And we can collectively help more of our most vulnerable college students to graduate.

This work is urgent because a college degree is increasingly becoming necessary to compete in today’s workforce and to lead a thriving life. A two-year degree can earn students nearly 20 percent more annually than just a high school diploma. And over the course of a lifetime, the average American with a bachelor’s degree will earn about $1 million more than those without any postsecondary education. Those with bachelor’s degrees also are more likely to repay their student loans successfully and are far less likely to face unemployment. College is a passport to opportunity, especially when 65 percent of jobs produced in the coming decade will require some post-secondary education.

This work is urgent because more students from a wider range of backgrounds are enrolling in higher education. We know that more students living in poverty and those who are experiencing homelessness are in college now than in previous years. Over the last 12 years, the number of students who also are parents grew from 1.1 million to 4.8 million. And about a quarter of undergraduates are single parents. Even while the doors of college are opening wider for more historically underserved students, the price tag of higher education and the cost of living in many areas has greatly increased.

Over the last two decades, for example, room and board costs increased by 54 percent at public four-year institutions and by 14 percent at two-year colleges. At the same time, many states are disinvesting in their public higher education systems and funding levels for public benefits programs are at historic lows. There also are deeply troubling cuts to higher education and student support programs in the current administration’s proposed federal budget, which amounts to nothing short of an assault on the American Dream. All of these conditions have combined so that a growing number of college students find themselves in perilous economic circumstances. And as everyone in this room knows, that often means that students have to make the difficult and painful choice between spending their limited resources on housing…or tuition…or academic materials, such as books…or childcare…or food. No student should have to choose between education and eating. No student should have to choose between where they will sleep and whether they graduate.

This work is urgent because even initial studies find that the effects of basic needs insecurity on college students are profound. Students who struggle to find and afford nutritionally adequate and safe foods have a higher likelihood of experiencing stress and anxiety and they are more susceptible to depression. Students who are housing insecure have lower grade point averages. Developing research from the University of Wisconsin-Madison also shows that housing insecurity during a student’s first year of college is associated with a nearly 10-percent reduction in the probability of degree attainment. And in more than 100 cities in America, everyday life for the homeless has been criminalized through laws that classify things such as sleeping outside and brushing one’s teeth in public as punishable offenses. For many homeless college students, this reality can drive risky behaviors such as sleeping on the roofs of buildings and in the shadows of bridges and abandoned lots where it is more difficult for police to find them. Homeless and hungry students have to devote tremendous energy simply to surviving. For many of them, their situation carries such a stigma that they are embarrassed or ashamed to seek out help on their campuses. And that is the main challenge that everyone gathered here today faces—how to humanely and compassionately connect students to resources.

As we grapple with this challenge, it’s important for us to recognize that progress has been made. To address hunger and food insecurity, colleges all across the country now sponsor food pantries—some of which are mobile—and many make it a point to stock their shelves with healthy food options and fresh produce. The University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, for instance, has established its UNC Bear Pantry—which also is a registered 501(c)3. To lessen the stigma that could be associated with utilizing the service, any enrolled UNC student can receive up to five food and toiletry items at the pantry twice per week. The university also enables students to donate unused meal card swipes from the campus meal program to classmates in need. Oregon State University’s Services Resource Center is a great example of a “food pantry-plus” model. The Center not only provides students with food, but also helps them apply for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. The Center helps students to become more self-sufficient and food secure by offering cooking classes, resources to find free meals on campus, and opportunities to participate in agricultural programs in exchange for food.

To assist disadvantaged parents pursuing higher education, a number of colleges and universities are using two-generation initiatives that benefit parents and their children. In Kentucky, this summer, Eastern Scholar House opened as a place where single parents who are enrolled in college can live with their children at little cost. It is a partnership among the Kentucky Housing Corporation, a community organization, institutions of higher education, and other public-private groups. Childcare and educational supports such as Head Start are even coordinated through the program. There’s also Valencia College in Florida, which offers childcare so students who are parents can further their education while knowing that their children are cared for and safe.

To combat homelessness, many institutions offer payment assistance for off-campus housing and scholarships for displaced students and single parents. Organizations like the Southern Scholarship Foundation in Florida have been engaged in the work to support college students experiencing housing insecurity for decades. Since 1955, SSF annually has awarded hundreds of rent-free housing scholarships to students at seven community colleges and universities across the state. Since so many students experience food and housing insecurity simultaneously, an emerging best practice is the designation of college staff members as “single points of contact.” These administrators can help students find and obtain services to meet both needs. California State University campuses are implementing this practice. Schools are partnering CSU financial aid officers with student affairs representatives to ensure even better coordination of resources. What is especially heartening is that the impacts of these programs are not just experienced by the students on the college campuses who directly benefit. Institutions, college faculty and staff, program operators, service providers, and students at other campuses all across the country also will benefit by the findings that come from studying these promising efforts.

Sometimes, though, powerful interventions can be rather simple. Sara started a trend at Temple University when she added a few sentences to her syllabus. She urged students who were facing food or housing challenges—which could negatively affect their academic performance—to notify Sara herself and to seek out Temple’s dean of students. The inclusion of this “basic needs statement” on course materials has also spread to other universities. In fact, I am teaching an undergraduate course at the University of Maryland this semester and—inspired by Sara—I included a basic needs statement on my own syllabus. There’s also Jack Norton, a history instructor at Normandale Community College in Minnesota, who has taken this idea a few steps further. On his course syllabus, he shares information about resources such as the campus food pantry and local homeless shelters. He also includes a map identifying local establishments that offer free internet access. To ensure that a student’s financial circumstances are not an impediment to learning, he only uses free and openly licensed educational materials.

Despite these helpful and promising efforts, we haven’t quite gotten where we need to be yet in terms of systems change. Across the board, we need to look at whether current policies and programs at various levels—from the federal, to state, to institutional—are making things easier and not harder for our most vulnerable students. I believe students need greater access to more flexible federal and state financial aid for college and expanded work study programs that can ease the economic burden of higher education for students experiencing the greatest challenges. Any college affordability initiative must ensure that disadvantaged students—including homeless students or part-time students who cannot afford to give up their jobs—receive equitable access to financial aid. I believe we should explore the potential of expanding a free or subsidized meal program—similar to the one implemented in our K-12 public schools—at the college level.

And I believe that requirements of federal benefits programs can take into even better account the realities that college students face. SNAP, for example, is the most prominent federal support program for food, but undergraduates without children usually must work at least 20 hours per week to receive the benefit. Fulfilling that requirement while juggling the obligations of their studies and self-care is nearly an impossible feat for some students. That’s why, during the Obama administration, the U.S. Department of Education provided guidance on potential exemptions from student work requirements for those students attending college through SNAP. The Department also worked to support unaccompanied homeless youth to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. And across the administration, agencies created resources to help address economic insecurity on college campuses, assisted college students to find and afford quality childcare, provided grants to public housing authorities, and supported families through the college application and financial aid processes. This is important work that can and should be built upon. Evidence shows that coordinating public, federal benefits for students can help to close the gap on unmet financial need for college, support students’ college completion, and even lead to students’ later success in the workforce.

At the institutional level, colleges and universities also must look at the challenge of addressing basic needs insecurity as an ongoing effort. It is not enough simply to establish a food pantry or to create a flexible, two-generation, or mixed-income housing program on campus and call that success. It is also necessary to ensure that critical partnerships with neighborhood organizations, city and town services, businesses, and local K-12 schools are maintained and explored. It is necessary to gather and then coordinate information from campus financial aid and student affairs offices. And it’s critical to determine how to make the student experience of the services provided by those offices more streamlined and efficient.

Another key thing for state policy-makers to consider is the impact of outcomes-based funding models. These state-level initiatives seek to incentivize colleges and universities to increase their performance in particular areas, such as retention and completion rates, by allocating funding based on how well institutions perform on those indicators. As some states consider outcomes-based funding approaches to higher education, it’s critical for institutions and advocates to ensure that the most vulnerable students are not forgotten in the race to drive up outcomes on certain performance indicators and receive additional funding from states.

Businesses and philanthropic groups have a role in addressing basic needs insecurity in higher education as well. College food service providers can offer an important perspective that has not yet been robustly tapped. A convening with these companies could be a way to leverage good corporate citizens in this work by discussing how to develop a more systemic approach to supporting students dealing with food insecurity. And as Gail O. Mellow, President of LaGuardia Community College, recently wrote in The New York Times, individual donors, corporations, and foundations should consider where the biggest needs are in higher education and diversify where they donate their dollars. President Mellow pointed out that last year, more than $41 billion was given in charity to higher education. But a quarter of that philanthropic giving went to just 20 institutions.

And finally, everyone in this room should be a loud voice in support of the Pell Grant program. The recent HOPE Lab study found that community colleges with greater proportions of students of color and those receiving the Pell Grant are more likely to have higher rates of food and housing insecurity, as well as homelessness. This is especially troubling when the purchasing power of the Pell Grant is at its lowest point in over 40 years. All of us can be passionate advocates for Pell. We need to demand that the maximum Pell Grant should be increased significantly and that Pell Grants should be indexed to inflation so that as college costs continue to rise, the grant will cover more of the bill and won’t force vulnerable students to take on even greater loan debt. We also need to demand that Pell’s temporary reserves—which exist to keep the program stable—are not targeted for cuts by Congress or this administration.

It’s clear that there is much more that all of us can do to expand the promise of college opportunity to all students—especially those who are disadvantaged. But if we work together, it’s possible to build a nation of shared prosperity in which education helps to make the American Dream achievable for everyone. Ultimately, we should fight for the incremental changes I have described because, as President Obama would say, “better is good.” Where Congress or a state legislature or a campus president or even an individual faculty member can make things better for students suffering basis needs insecurity, they should. But I would urge us to dream bigger. As Vice President Joe Biden would say regarding the budget: Budgets are about choices. Between 1989 and 2011, state and local budgets for corrections expanded 11 times as fast as did the amounts allocated to public colleges and universities.

But it doesn’t have to be that way: President Obama proposed America’s College Promise to make community college tuition free. Tennessee Promise expanded to Tennessee Reconnect. Regarding the idea of free tuition, if we want college to be truly accessible, we need a different kind of social contract. We need to invest not just in tuition, but in all of the supports that students need to succeed, including advising, counseling, transportation, housing—both during the school year and in the summer—food, books, and more. We need to expand access to quality childcare. We need to ensure that students receiving Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protections continue to be protected and that they are able to pursue their dreams of achieving higher education. And we need to make sure that every college and university campus climate ensures a sense of belonging for first generation students and students of color.

I’ll close with this: A couple of years ago, the New York City Rescue Mission engaged in a social experiment in which unsuspecting people came face to face with their friends and relatives who were made to appear as if they were homeless on the streets of Soho. Not one individual in the social experiment recognized his or her loved ones when they were portrayed as homeless. So if we are to address students who are homeless and those who are housing and food insecure on our college campuses, we need to see these students. We need to really see them, we need to work to better understand and empathize with their challenges, and then we need to serve them. That’s how we can begin to further develop policies and programs that humanely and compassionately ensure that our homeless and hungry students receive the supports they need to thrive. Thank you; and I’m glad to take your questions.