The Evolution of Poverty in Higher Education

Broton, Katharine M. (2017). The Evolution of Poverty in Higher Education: Material Hardship, Academic Success, and Policy Perspectives. University of Wisconsin-Madison Doctoral Dissertation.


Despite improvements in college access, college completion rates remain low among students from low-income and otherwise vulnerable families. Over the past three decades, college prices rose dramatically, the real income of most families stagnated, and the purchasing power of need-based financial aid declined. To make up for substantial unmet financial need, students often work and take out loans. Additionally, some students go hungry or homeless while pursuing their educational goals. Strong theory and some evidence indicates that experiences of material hardship—meaning that individuals lack the minimum basic goods necessary for decent human functioning—inhibit academic success, but we lack systematic research on the topic.

In this multi-method project, I examine the problem of material hardship among college students and find that a substantial share of undergraduates, and especially those attending community colleges, are food and/or housing insecure. Next, I investigate the relationship between material hardship and academic success using quasi-experimental matching methods and multiple regression. Results indicate that students who experience housing insecurity during their first year in college are nearly 10 percentage points less likely to have graduated or be enrolled four years later than otherwise similar peers. Reductions in academic achievement and credit attainment both appear to contribute to poorer academic outcomes for housing insecure students over the long term. Although food insecurity is inversely associated with academic achievement and attainment, the statistically significant relationship does not persist once background factors are considered. Additional analyses using two other study samples yielded substantively similar conclusions. Housing insecurity appears to be an independent source of educational disadvantage while the relationship between food insecurity and academic success could not be isolated in a multivariable context. Finally, I examine current higher education policy perspectives through a text analysis of two intermediary organizations with divergent ideologies. I use Social Construction and Policy Design theory to better understand debated constructions of key issues and students and predict how policymakers might respond to students who lack basic needs.

These findings contribute to our understanding of undergraduates’ experiential and material challenges and inform policy debates regarding financial and in-kind support for college students.