The Evolution of Poverty in Higher Education: Material Hardship, Academic Success, and Policy Perspectives


Today’s economy increasingly demands a postsecondary education and students from all backgrounds have responded by enrolling in higher education. Yet over the past three decades, college prices have risen dramatically, the real income of most families has been flat, and the purchasing power of need-based financial aid has declined. To make up for substantial unmet financial need, students often work for pay and take out loans. Additionally, more students report going hungry or homeless so they can pursue their educational goals. Experiences of material hardship—meaning that individuals lack the minimum basic goods necessary for decent human functioning—may inhibit academic success, but we lack systematic research on the topic. In this multi-method project, I examine the incidence of material hardship, including food and housing insecurity, among college students using nationally representative data, and I track how the prevalence of these hardships has changed over time. Additionally, I investigate the relationship between material hardship and academic achievement and attainment. Given the low rate of college completion and increased hardship risk among certain groups, I also examine heterogeneity according to income, race/ethnicity, and college institutional sector. Finally, I use critical discourse analysis to explore how key intermediary organizations frame poor college students in policy proposals to reform the higher education system. The findings contribute to our understanding of students’ experiential challenges during college and inform policy debates regarding financial and in-kind support for students.

Research Contribution

Elementary and secondary education scholars have long recognized the role of poverty in students’ educational experiences and outcomes. Subsequently, they have informed key policy decisions including the National School Lunch Program and transportation rights for homeless and highly mobile students. Eligibility for these programs abruptly ends when students leave high school, even though their needs remain. For college students, the financial aid system provides some support, but it cannot and does not eliminate poverty.  To help meet students’ basic needs, colleges and non-profit organizations alleviate material hardship through food shelves and emergency housing programs. These institutions are adapting to meet the needs and challenges of a new generation of college students who often juggle multiple work and family responsibilities. Current higher education and social policies, on the other hand, have struggled to adjust to this changing reality. The results of this research will guide poverty alleviation and inform a larger policy debate about the types and levels of support that might promote academic success among college students struggling to make ends meet.