Losing HOPE

There is a new economics of college in America. In the past, students and families who worked hard stood a real chance of attaining a college degree, a ticket to the good life. But then the world shifted. Today, the promise of a college degree in exchange for hard work and dedication no longer holds true. – Sara Goldrick-Rab, Paying The Price

One of our goals in creating this blog was to give students a window into what goes on behind-the-scenes in academia. We hope that through doing this we can assist students in their collegiate journey. As such, we thought it important to inform you of a new report that has been making waves in the world of higher education. The nation’s largest basic needs survey (among undergraduate students) was recently published by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab. The results aren’t comforting. Analyzing the survey for 4-year university students shows that 36% of respondents had experienced food insecurity within the preceding thirty days. Another 36% reported experiencing housing insecurity within a year of taking the survey. In fact, 9% of undergraduates who took the survey reported experiencing homelessness within the past year. And these are conservative estimates.


But before diving into this ground-breaking report, let’s look into the reasons why this survey was conducted in the first place. Awareness of basic need insecurity across college students has been on the rise over the past decade. Nation-wide, universities and public officials have begun to realize the prominence of instability within their institutions. The Wisconsin HOPE Lab reports that since 2011, over 20 studies have been conducted in regards to post-secondary need insecurity, whereas there were only two studies before then. This new data has consistently shown that a startling number of college students (both 4-year and community) were/are facing insecurity in their lives.

Sara Goldrick-Rab and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab

Sara Goldrick-Rab (PhD) has been a monumental force throughout this movement. Following over a decade of research into collegiate success, Dr. Goldrick-Rab founded the institution known as the Wisconsin HOPE Lab in July of 2013 (no, HOPE is not an acronym). In doing so, she created the nation’s “first laboratory for translational research aimed at improving equitable outcomes in postsecondary education”. If you don’t know what “translational research” is (I sure didn’t) then here is a handy explanation provided by the lab itself:

Translational research originated in the medical field, where research findings are “translated” into therapies that are first clinically tested and then applied in medical practice. In the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, our ‘patients’ are people who face obstacles to obtaining a college degree, as well as the social structures that impede their progress. The therapies we test are interventions in policies and programs like financial aid, academic instruction, and social supports. The institutions and structures making up higher education in Wisconsin and the nation represent the field where these will be put into practice.

In other words, Goldrick-Rab and her Wisconsin HOPE Lab (hey, that rhymes!) are not only gathering data on struggling college students, but also using that data to propose solutions to issues that present themselves. Sound familiar?

Paying The Price

Three years after founding the HOPE Lab, Goldrick-Rab published her critically acclaimed book Paying The Price. The text provides a scathing argument against the current education system – citing sources from previous studies and new data gathered from the lab. In fact, some of the data was pulled from the HOPE lab’s first national needs survey – perhaps foreshadowing the report that came out recently. Paying The Price quickly gained wide-spread renown, driving the movement we see within academia today. Even Trevor Noah, comedic host of The Daily Show, read and reviewed the book! If you have any interest in higher education, we highly recommend you give it a read.

Still Hungry and Homeless in College

Paying the Price brought the prevalence of need insecurity to a wider audience, so it should come as no surprise that the 2nd national survey conducted by the HOPE Lab brought in much more data. While the first survey included only ~4,000 students, their second survey included more than 33,000 students. In this report, it was discovered that over half of the students had experienced housing insecurity. The other results were equally uninspiring.

However, it is important to note that – of their own admission –  these results were not nationally representative. While the second survey improved on the first, surveying 24 states rather than 7, that is still far from a nationally representative sample population. Additionally, these first two surveys were only conducted on community college students. This brings us to the new report, which is their 3rd national survey on basic need insecurity.

This year we report on 43,000 students at 66 institutions in 20 states and the District of Columbia. That includes over 20,000 students at 35 4-year colleges and universities, as well as students at community colleges.

While the decrease in state representation may cause some skepticism, the sample is much more inclusive, including public, private, and community college students. As UWT is a public 4-year university, we will be analyzing that data.

UWT and Basic Needs

In order to discuss basic need insecurity, it’s important to understand exactly what it is. So here are some definitions for you to reference (definitions provided by HOPE Lab report).

  • Food Insecurity. The limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner.
  • Housing Insecurity. A broader set of challenges such as the inability to pay rent or utilities or the need to move frequently.
  • Homeless. A person is without a place to live, often residing in a shelter, an automobile, an abandoned building or outside.

UW Tacoma has recently completed a survey on homelessness, so we should start by comparing the HOPE Lab’s results with our own results. Note that UW did not participate in the HOPE survey, so the data we will be comparing is appropriately separate. You can see a list of universities that did participate here.


Homelessness in college students is still an extremely rare situation in the minds of most people. They figure that, one way or another, almost all students will have a place to stay. This report explodes that notion, revealing that ~9% of undergraduates had experienced homelessness within a year of taking the survey. That’s almost one in every 10 students. This coincides with the fact that 9.5% of all homeless citizens in the U.S. are 18-25 years old.

So how do you think we fared in our localized survey regarding homelessness? It is no secret that much of Tacoma and Seattle have a severe homeless population. In fact, both cities have declared a state of emergency in response to the issue. Additionally, Seattle/King County has the 3rd highest homeless population of all U.S. cities, trumped only (albeit significantly) by Los Angeles and New York City.

With that in mind, it may come as no surprise that 14% of UWT’s students were/are experiencing homelessness. That’s 5% more than the HOPE Lab’s estimate. And if our homeless population is that bad, it begs the question: how severe is food and housing insecurity within our community? Homelessness is consistently much less prevalent than other insecurities within an institution – so we can reasonably infer that housing and food insecurity is at least as severe as the HOPE Lab’s results (experienced by 1/3 of students).  But, I would venture to say that it is likely much worse. Unfortunately there is no solid data (yet) to make a conclusive statement on overall insecurity at UW Tacoma.

What are we doing to help?

Fortunately, UWT is doing a lot of work to combat this epidemic. Doing a homelessness survey at all is one such example of our university’s efforts. Services like The Pantry are another example; thanks to it, students experiencing food insecurity have somewhere to turn to when necessary. In more recent events, there was a workshop where we put together foot care bags for the MEDEX/Urban Grace Tacoma Foot Care Project. UW is even heading an insecurity initiative, which included a survey (closed March 17th) that will hopefully provide a more transparent view of insecurity among our students. And remember, if you yourself are experiencing any of the issues discussed in this article, there are resources specifically designed to help you. Here’s a list of some:

What more can we do?

As students, we can take a more active role in this movement. There seems to be a common discourse in most college students that we can’t do anything – and that’s just not true. Student impact can be very powerful, whether that be through creating new programs, advocating, educating, or a plethora of other tactics. If you need more ideas, there is an entire section of the HOPE report dedicated to what students can do to help. In the end, the key is that we do something, and not just stand by apathetically. If we students won’t even help each other, how can we expect colleges and politicians to?


The goal of this article was to enlighten students to the prevalence of insecurity among their peers. As usual, we would also like to offer possible solutions. But first, we must identify the consequences of the issues discussed above. It will come as no surprise that students facing insecurity consistently do worse academically. Quite simply, they have a more important thing to worry about: survival.

But even for students who are facing less severe cases of insecurity, the mental toll can push undergrads into less ideal positions. In a previous article, we discussed the various ways us students can align ourselves in order to increase our likelihood of success. Insecurity encourages students to move away from these beneficial positions. For example, you may decide to take less classes so you can work more in order to afford rent or groceries. In doing so, though, you are decreasing your credits taken for that quarter – and that significantly decreases your “retention rate” (the probability that you will stay in college until the next academic year). This is especially detrimental if taking one less course shifts you from a full-time student to a part-time student. Not only can this greatly impede your access to financial aid, it’s also statistically proven to decrease your probability of retention (see our previous post for more details).

What does this mean for us? Well, in short, it means that we are going to see a lot more “non-traditional” students crop up as undergrads attempt to find the best academic plan for their situation. According to Starfish by Hobsons, 57% of students at public 4-year universities fall into the post-traditional category. That number is certainly higher here at UWT, where 44% of our students have taken at least one part-time quarter. And that’s just one characteristic that makes a student non-traditional.

Despite this, universities have just started to cater more towards post-traditional students. It is important that we attempt to paint a more holistic picture of collegiate-life as more students from various backgrounds transition into our universities. In light of this, our next article will take what we have learned today (and more) to analyze and propose solutions to non-traditional problems. In addition, we will look at what might motivate people to become post-traditional students. We plan to analyze need insecurity, financial aid, tuition, family income, UW’s demographics, and national dilemmas. So stay tuned!

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