Basic Needs Insecurity
in Massachusetts Public Colleges and Universities
In fall 2017, researchers from Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison conducted a large-scale survey to better understand basic needs insecurity among college students at both community colleges and 4-year colleges and universities.1 The effort built on a similar survey of 70 community colleges during the 2016–2017 academic year. In total, 33 community colleges and 36 4-year colleges and universities, from twenty states and the District of Columbia, participated in the 2017 survey. 2
In 2018, Massachusetts' public colleges and universities, led by the Department of Higher Education, became the first state system of higher education to participate in the HOPE Lab survey. The rationale was clear: in the Commonwealth's high-skilled innovation economy, 70% of all jobs now require a post-secondary credential. The state's leaders and citizens are justifiably proud of their legacy of academic excellence. But Massachusetts also ranks highly on a less desirable index: #6 in the U.S. for income inequality. State and campus leaders saw participation in the HOPE Lab survey as a means of gauging the impact of economic inequality among students, in order to assess whether or how basic needs insecurity hampers students' efforts to earn the very college credentials that could help them achieve a lifetime of economic self-sufficiency. In Massachusetts, 9% of those with some college or an associate’s degree, and 4% of those with at least a bachelor’s degree, live below the poverty line, compared to 12% of those with only a high school diploma.3 The median annual salary for a Massachusetts resident with some college or an associate’s degree is $40,639 and for a resident with a bachelor’s degree is $59,781, 21% and 78% higher, respectively, than the $33,642 earned by the median high school graduate.4
Although higher education has become a prerequisite for economic success in Massachusetts, college students themselves often have difficulty accessing sufficient food and housing as they pursue their academic goals. To better understand the challenges faced by college students in particular, this report presents a profile of survey participants in Massachusetts public colleges and universities. In addition, the report compares state-level results with aggregated results from the national survey sample. National sample results are similar to those found in the associated national survey report Still Hungry and Homeless in College.
In Massachusetts, 15 community colleges and 8 universities participated in the 2017 survey (see Participating Institutions below for a complete list).5 Over 129,489 students were invited to participate in the survey, and 8,333 students responded, for a response rate of 6.4%.6
To better facilitate comparisons with state and national data and to assess which students were more or less likely to respond to the survey instrument, the table below presents sample characteristics for Massachusetts. In general, survey respondents in Massachusetts were very similar to those in the national sample, particularly among those attending community colleges. Respondents from universities differed slightly from their counterparts in the national sample. The Massachusetts 4-year sample contains fewer white and more black students. In addition, students in Massachusetts 4-year institutions were less likely to receive the Pell grant and more likely to be employed.
|Group||2-Year Institutions||4-Year Institutions|
|More than one race/Other|
|18 to 20|
|21 to 25|
|26 to 30|
|Highest Level of Parental Education|
|Bachelor’s degree or greater|
|Student Is Claimed by Parent as Dependent|
|Student Ever in Foster Care|
|Student Has Children|
|In a relationship|
|Years in College|
|Less than 1|
|1 to 2|
|More than 2|
|Student Receives the Pell Grant|
Food insecurity is the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner.7 To assess food insecurity among students, the survey instrument included the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) 10-item Food Security Survey Module (FSSM).
Figure 1 displays results from the FSSM. Forty-seven percent of respondents from community colleges and 39% of respondents at universities indicated that they could not afford to eat balanced meals. Across all ten items in the USDA food security survey module, Massachusetts students answered similarly to students in the national sample.
The USDA recommends assigning each respondent a score based on the total number of affirmative answers on the 10-item instrument. That score determines a person’s food security status via a four-category scale, where a score of zero corresponds to high food security, one to two indicates marginal food security, three to five translate to low food security, and scores of six or more indicate very low food security (See Table 2). Taken together, people who report low and very low food security can be referred to as food insecure.
|Items Endorsed||Food Security Level||Classification|
Figure 2 shows food security scores for Massachusetts. Forty-four percent of community college students and 33% of 4-year college students reported low or very low food security during the previous 30 days. Of those, 29% of community college students and 20% of 4-year college students reported very low food security, which reflects, “multiple indications of reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns due to inadequate resources for food,” according to the USDA.8 Worcester State University, which used the 6-item USDA FSSM, found that 26.7% of its students were food insecure, with 12.5% reporting very low food insecurity.
Housing insecurity can involve unaffordable housing, poor housing quality, crowding, and frequent moves.9 The survey instrument included six items to assess whether a student has experienced housing insecurity in the past month and in the past year. Students were classified as housing insecure if they answered affirmatively to at least one of those items. Figure 3 shows an overall measure of housing insecurity and its component items. Forty-nine percent of community college students reported housing insecurity in the past year and 38% in the past month. For 4-year college students, these statistics were 32% and 20%, respectively. Most commonly, students were unable to pay the full amounts of utility bills or had difficulty keeping pace with rent or mortgage increases.
Homelessness indicates that a person is without a place to live, often residing in a shelter, automobile, an abandoned building, or outside. Students are considered homeless if they answered affirmatively to at least one of five items. These items, and an overall measure of homelessness, are displayed in Figure 4. Thirteen percent of Massachusetts community college students experienced homelessness in the past year, compared to 10% of 4-year college students. (In comparison, Worcester State University found that only 3.5% of its students experienced homelessness in the past year.) Homelessness in the past month was about half of the annual rates. Most commonly, students who reported homelessness did not know where they would sleep or were thrown out of their homes. Staying in a shelter was less frequent.
Intersections of Food Insecurity, Housing Insecurity, and Homelessness
Experiences with food insecurity, housing insecurity, and homelessness are likely to intersect for many students. Furthermore, students may go through different spells of challenges. Among Massachusetts community college students, we found that 23% reported both food and housing insecurity.10 Nine percent of community college students reported both food and housing insecurity and homelessness. Six percent of 4-year college students reported experiencing all three types of basic needs insecurity. Only 38% of community college students and 52% of 4-year college students reported no needs insecurity over the past year. In total, intersections of basic needs insecurities among Massachusetts students closely resembled national totals.
Basic Needs Security Variability
Figure 6 displays variation in food insecurity, housing insecurity, and homelessness among Massachusetts colleges.11 Food insecurity rates at Massachusetts community colleges ranged from approximately 35–60%. The range among universities was smaller. This same pattern is true of housing insecurity (although students at one Massachusetts 4-year college reported much higher rates of housing issues). Ranges of homelessness were smaller at both community colleges and universities.
Comparisons to National Statistics
In general, students in Massachusetts reported basic needs insecurities similar to those in the national sample. Massachusetts community college students were slightly more likely to report food insecurity compared to the national sample (44% versus 42%), however, Massachusetts 4-year college students were slightly less likely to report the same (34% versus 36%). The same pattern held for housing insecurity, while homelessness numbers were nearly identical across the Massachusetts and national samples.
Regional Differences in Massachusetts Colleges and Universities
To test whether basic needs insecurities vary across different regions of Massachusetts, we calculated rates of food insecurity, housing insecurity, and homelessness across five distinct areas of the state.