College tuition is on the rise, and so is food insecurity among students. Between the cost of attending college, stagnant wages, the persistence of inequality, and now inflation, it’s no wonder college students are struggling. Nearly 30% of students at four-year colleges reported food insecurity at some point during their college career, and the percentage is even higher for marginalized communities.

The problem: college students are being forced to choose between eating and paying for their tuition. 

Here’s why.


Rising Tuition Costs

Enrollment rates in American colleges and universities have doubled in the last 50 years. For most people, earning a college degree is the initial leap towards developing a career and financial security.


But for low-income students, enrolling in college is not at easy as it seems. Greater demand for higher education comes with increased costs of attending colleges and universities. 

The average college tuition varies by state, but the yearly average college tuition in the U.S. is $10,560 for in-state students and $27,023 for out-of-state students at public 4-year institutions. This is a 2,580% increase from the $394 average in-state tuition and fees in 1970. Yet, the minimum wage has only risen 400% from $1.45 in 1970 to $7.25 in 2022.

With increased numbers of low and middle-income students attending college, Americans have accumulated $1.2 trillion in college debts.

Expensive Meals Plans

The average college meal plan costs about $4,500 per year or $18.75 per day, with the more expensive meal plans reaching around $9,000. For a more affordable example, at Texas State – which requires residential students to purchase an on-campus meal plan – prices for the 2021-2022 school year start at $1,355 and go up to $2,145 a semester, depending on the plan. At Syracuse University in New York, prices are almost twice as high, with unlimited meal plans ranging between $4,135 and $4,335 per semester, according to its website. 

With the enormous cost of higher education and meal plans, it is no wonder many students are finding themselves stuck between a rock and a hard place. If being a full-time student isn’t hard enough, students who are food insecure are forced to make tough financial decisions that often lead to setbacks in achieving academic goals. 

While it is convenient that a meal plan offers the option for a student to dine on campus without having to buy groceries, it comes with a price tag. In addition, it can be difficult for students to decide which plan will work best for them. This leaves a lot of students having unused meals. 

Disparities in Basic Needs Insecurities

According to a survey report and responses from The Hope Center, a student in Florida stated, “The classes are way too expensive, especially if you are Black and live in poverty. It’s hard to pay for the class and rent, including books for your class or equipment for the class. Sometimes you have to make a difficult choice: pay for your class or don’t eat for a couple of days.” 


In addition, students from marginalized communities are more likely to experience basic needs insecurity. According to the same survey by The Hope Center, 75% of Indigenous, 70% of Black, and 70% of American Indian or Alaska Native students experienced food insecurity, housing insecurity, and homelessness across two- and four-year universities. 65% of students from LGBTQ communities also faced some form of basic needs insecurity during their time as a student, and female students were found to be 7% more likely than male students to experience basic needs insecurity.

Food Insecurity

According to a survey report from The Hope Center, amongst the survey respondents at two-year colleges, 38% experienced food insecurity in the 30 days before the survey, with just over 16% experiencing low food security and a little more than 22% experiencing very low food security. 

The defining characteristic of low food security is that “food intake of household members is reduced and their normal eating patterns are disrupted because the household lacks money and other resources for food.”

In addition, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 18-question framework for food security stated that over two in five survey respondents at two-year colleges and nearly a third of those at four-year colleges worried about their food running out before they had money to buy more. 


Student Access to Resources

Defining food insecurity on campus can be difficult. Some students might be food insecure and not be aware that they are. While some students might have access to an on- or near-campus food pantry, they might not be able to get there sufficiently. Not all campuses have free transportation, and this could stop a college student from having access to a free meal. Not only that, but while some students might be able to obtain food from a pantry, they might not have the proper materials or appliances to cook the food items.

On-campus, the College & University Food Bank Alliance, reports it has more than 700 members who operate food pantries for students. But the success of these locations depends mainly on students getting to campus to access the pantry, which for some students became a challenge during the pandemic. Not all students have access to transportation, and not all universities provide on-campus transportation. 

The Pandemic’s Effect

The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem of college students facing food insecurity, homelessness, and other basic needs insecurity. In Fall 2020, the Hope Center found that 29% of students attending four-year colleges reported experiencing food insecurity. In addition, students who had COVID-19 were 1.7 times more likely to experience food insecurity, anxiety, and depression than those who hadn’t been infected with the virus. 

According to a recent report by and Swipe Out Hunger, nearly one-third (29%) of college students have missed a meal at least once a week since the pandemic's beginning. During the pandemic, more than half of all students (52%) used off-campus food banks, and 30% use them once or more. 

Because of these issues, college food pantries on or near campus are essential and extremely impactful. However, it is still imperative for universities to ensure that students are aware of the resources the campus has and the best way for these students to access them efficiently. 

In response to the pandemic, congress increased SNAP benefits, but only students who participate in state or federally financed work study are eligible. Many students do not know how to apply for SNAP benefits unless their university informs them. Some students believe that schools should raise awareness about SNAP benefits


The “Non-Traditional” College Student

In recent years, the “traditional” college student has changed. According to Feeding America, this includes financially independent students who enrolled part-time in school while working full-time or did not receive a traditional high school diploma. In addition, the average age of college students is 26, and many students aren’t starting college right after high school. 

This changing face of the average college student brings new challenges. In addition, 1 in 5 students is caring for a child, and many as single parents. It’s also been found that single-parent households are dramatically more at risk of being food insecure. Families with children with a single mother had a food insecurity rate of 30.2%, and 15.4% of single fathers dealt with food insecurity. Between rising tuition costs, parenting, and working full-time, making ends meet can be challenging. 

Food Banks on Campus

Even though the issue of hunger on campuses remains invisible to many, faculties and schools are beginning to take notice and are taking steps to address the problem.

In the past two decades alone, there has been a spike in the number of food pantries on college campuses. 

The oldest campus food bank, founded in 1993, is at Michigan State University, which feeds 2,200 of the school’s 50,000 students. While more than 2,200 students are considered food insecure on campus, the stigma related to utilizing food banks and pantries prevents many students from using the food bank as a resource.

Schools like LaGuardia Community College have their on-campus food pantries set up to be unnoticeable to most people to reduce the stigma\ associated with food pantries. Students come into the financial aid office and are sent home with unmarked food bags.

The College and University Food Bank Alliance, which supports college food banks and was co-founded by MSU, was recently acquired by Swipe Out Hunger and currently has more than 800 members in its network. 

The National Student Campaign Against Hunger & Homelessness suggests that colleges and universities address food insecurity by implementing college food pantries, campus community gardens, food recovery programs, and benefits access programs. The NSCAHH provides a Food Pantry Toolkit that provides the resources your organization needs to create and operate a successful food pantry on your campus. The NSCAHH also provides surveyed research on food insecurity and college students that helps strengthen the development of progress on reducing food insecurity.

In May 2021, two bills addressing food insecurity on college campuses were introduced at the federal level, one in the House (HR 1919 EATS Act of 2021) and one in the Senate (S 1569 Student Food Security Act of 2021). Unfortunately, while Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits were temporarily extended to college-age students during the pandemic, these benefits are set to expire after 9 months without legislative action and, in many cases, without options for the college students impacted. 

Currently, college students may be eligible for SNAP assistance if they are independent college students, and/or are students that are eligible for federal work-study, and/or are students whose expected family contribution is zero.

What's Next

We can and should do better for these students but doing so requires that we do not depend solely on universities to create solutions for needs that are best met and sustained through the expansion of tried and successful federal approaches.
If you are a busy college student, you can make a change at your school! There are steps you can take to fight hunger! Move For Hunger can help you plan, promote, and coordinate a food drive on your campus! If you want to join the fight against hunger, consider making a donation today or becoming a monthly donor!