Round Rock, TX – Most college students are committed to their education and willing to make sacrifices to obtain a degree. But when basic needs, like food security, are not being met, academic performance can slip as students try to balance school, work, and family obligations under persistent stress.
Trellis Company’s latest report, Studying on Empty: A Qualitative Study of Low Food Security Among College Students, documents and explores the lived experiences of students with low food security, how students cope with its challenges, and how these strategies influence academic performance. The report reveals common drivers of food insecurity at the collegiate level and also provides promising practices for supporting students with low food security.
This is the first report from the Trellis Financial Security Study, in which Trellis followed 72 current students for nine months (January 2017 to October 2017) capturing the shifting nature of food security in a college setting. This qualitative study describes the dynamics that can affect students’ levels of food security (i.e., high/marginal, low, and very low), as well as the mechanisms through which food insecurity can harm students’ academic standards and career goals. In this report, low food security is contrasted with the even more debilitating very low food security level.
“Our ability to interact with the same students over an extended period of time enabled us to discover that food security among college students is typically fluid, which provides an additional layer of understanding,” said Jeff Webster, Trellis’ Director of Research. “Students also shared that their academic performance mirrored their level of food security. The student voices captured in this study speak to the power of unexpected events and the difficult prioritizations students make each day that affect their food security.”
“This ambitious qualitative study provides critical insights, nuance, and real student stories to the accumulating quantitative data and findings on college student food security. This report ought to be read by anyone interested in meeting students’ needs and improving student success. I commend Trellis for this excellent and important study.” David Tandberg, Vice President of Policy Research and Strategic Initiatives at State Higher Education Executive Officers Association (SHEEO).
Studying on Empty discovered the following:
- While low food security often stems from a scarcity of money, there are other factors like insufficient time, persistent stress, and lack of information that can exacerbate low food security.
- Students who struggle with food security often face hard choices in how to allocate their scarce time and often are forced to neglect academic work in order to obtain more steady access to food.
- Food security is not static, but fluid, subject to catalysts that improve and degrade security.
- Food security tends to decline when students face employment disruptions, loss of financial aid, family crises, and unexpected costs such as car repairs, rent increases, spike in utility costs, and changes in daycare arrangements.
- Food security often improves when students find living wage jobs with easy commutes, gain access to financial aid or public benefit programs, receive money or living accommodations from family or romantic partners, and obtain low-price textbooks.
- When students are able to become food secure, they often report increased sleep, reduced stress, and higher levels of energy.
“The students’ stories tell how sacrifice, persistence, personal growth, empathetic administrators, beneficial programs, and the vagaries of chance affected their ability to stay in school,” said Webster. “These students worked hard and committed themselves to school. They made daily sacrifices to achieve their educational goals, yet they worried about being able to meet their basic needs. Most students highly valued their academics, but difficulties with meeting basic needs endangered their ability to be successful in their academic pursuits.”
About the study
Trellis conducted 499 interviews which produced 291 hours of recordings documenting how student circumstances changed over a nine-month period, including the previously under-researched summer period. Topics discussed with students included: academic goals; degree plans; personal, financial, and academic challenges; class attendance; grades; the effects of higher education on personal finances; perceptions of student loans/student loan debt; housing; food security; interactions with school agents; and strategies for success.
This report is the first in a series. Each report will present an in-depth look into student finances and their relation to academic success, through conversations directly with students.
Accessing the report
To download a PDF of the full report, Studying on Empty: A Qualitative Study of Low Food Security Among College Students, visit www.trelliscompany.org/studying-on-empty.
Trellis Company is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) corporation with the dual mission of helping student borrowers successfully repay their education loans and promoting access and success in higher education.
We have a nearly 40-year successful track record of delivering positive outcomes for students and institutions. Our strong philanthropic heritage of giving through grants to colleges, universities, and research groups remains focused on improving student outcomes, especially to assist underserved students and families, and to help institutions navigate the changing landscape of higher education.