In recent years, the rate of college students experiencing homelessness has been on the rise, especially among students attending community colleges. In fact, a few colleges have been making headlines for taking more steps to support these students, such as Long Beach Community College designating specific safe areas for students to sleep in their cars.

In addition to homelessness, an estimated three out of five college students have faced food insecurity while attending school. Democrats’ push for free community college would have likely alleviated some of the hardships these students face, but the measure was dropped. We surveyed 1,000 current college students to get a better understanding of the challenges and risks they are facing in order to get an education.

We found that:

  • 78% of college students have had to choose between paying for food and paying for school
  • 29% of students skip meals every day because they cannot afford food
  • 18% of students work more than 35 hours a week in addition to school

78% Say They Have Had to Choose Between Eating and Paying for School

When asked if they ever had to choose between paying for food and paying for textbooks, tuition, or other costs of attendance, the overwhelming majority of respondents (78%) said that they had. Although the college student stereotype of surviving on instant noodles is often portrayed in a humorous light, the reality may be closer to that or worse than we realize.

“A lot of college students end up being unprepared for the true cost of college,” commented Claire Westbrook, a former college student who volunteered at her campus food bank and is now the founder of LSAT Prep Hero. “They’re very likely to not be financially literate or to have a robust emergency fund to cover unexpected expenses.”

Nearly 1 in 3 Students Have to Skip Meals Daily

We also asked students how often they skipped meals because they could not afford food or needed to save money, and 39% stated they skipped meals once a week, while 29% reported skipping meals every day.

Food insecurity can hugely affect a student’s life and ability to learn in obvious ways. A study published in the American Psychological Association found that, “Compared with students who had reliable access to enough food, students who were food insecure experienced significantly higher rates of depression, loneliness, and anxiety. They also had lower self-esteem and lower grade-point averages and were more likely to withdraw from the university before earning their degrees.”

“Colleges should offer free or subsidized meals to food-insecure students,” Westbrook added. “This would be an important aid for their academic success.”

Nearly 1 in 5 College Students Work Full-Time

Although so many respondents report facing weekly or even daily food insecurity, it’s not because they aren’t earning money. Of the current students we surveyed, 18% say that they work more than 35 hours a week, while 17% work 25-35 hours a week and 19% work 15-25 hours a week. This is a significant amount of time on top of schoolwork and possible family obligations.

56% Say Having a Job Negatively Affects Their Ability to Learn

Two-thirds of students say their working while in school has negatively affected their sleep and mental health, while more than half say it negatively affects their social life and ability to learn. A study of students working full-time and going to night school found that, “The majority of participants mentioned difficulties in dealing with the pressure and their share of responsibilities at work. Body pains, headaches, sleep deprivation during the workweek, and frequent colds were mentioned.”

Despite the societal and financial pressure to earn a college degree, many students are struggling to make ends meet. The majority are experiencing food insecurity, as often as every day, and have a workload that is decreasing their learning ability. A college education has been shown to lead to higher long-term happiness, but for many students, this comes at the cost of their current wellbeing. With Democrats abandoning their proposal for free community college, it will likely be up to the individual institutions to better support their student population.

Jay Tifone, director of student support services at Southern New Hampshire University, outlines the ways in which one college works to help students facing food insecurity, noting, “The Cupboard, our university food pantry, provides all community members (students, staff, and faculty) with access to food at no cost. [We also provide] meal plan scholarships for students who cannot afford to eat or who exhaust their dining plan before term’s end [along with] support applying for SNAP benefits.”


This survey was commissioned by and conducted online by the survey platform Pollfish between November 18 and November 19, 2021. In total, 1,000 participants in the U.S. were surveyed. All participants had to pass through screening questions to ensure that they were currently in college. 32% of respondents are attending in-person college only, 25% are attending online-only, and 43% are attending both in-person and online classes.