One of the first lessons Jalyn Wharton learned her freshman year at Kennesaw State University was how to stretch a pizza so it would feed her for a week. It wasn’t the only time she’d had to ration food. When she was in high school, her family became homeless and Wharton would sometimes eat less to make sure her younger siblings got enough. Even as her family bounced between hotels and friends’ houses, Wharton stayed focused on school. Everyone told her education was her path out of poverty. She finished high school with honors and was thrilled to get into Kennesaw State, a research institution with 35,000 students near Atlanta, Georgia.
It was a relief to finally start college, Wharton says, but there were new obstacles. “I wasn’t really a resident here, or a resident of anywhere,” she says. Because she’d had no permanent address while her family was homeless, she couldn’t prove that she qualified for in-state tuition or a state scholarship. She couldn’t afford books or campus housing, which started at about $600 a month for a room, so she moved into a cheap hotel. Her family, now living in Indiana, pulled together enough money to pay for the room and to have a large pizza delivered once a week. “I was trying to remain positive, because this is what I needed to do to get where I want to go. This will help me stop the cycle of poverty, ” Wharton says. She was scared to admit how much she was struggling, and felt pressure to set a good example for her siblings. So she told herself: “You’re just going to tough this out.”
Wharton felt alone, but it has become clear in recent years that’s she’s no outlier; in fact, food insecurity and housing instability are defining factors of today’s college experience for a significant number of students. A recent survey of nearly 86,000 students found that 45 percent of respondents reported food insecurity in the previous 30 days, meaning they had limited or uncertain access to food. Fifty-six percent had been housing insecure in the previous year—that is, they were unable to pay full rent, lived in overcrowded conditions, or experienced other instability. Seventeen percent had been homeless at some point during the year. Despite a lack of representative national data, the evidence has continued to mount, and a steady stream of news stories has documented what it looks like on the ground: students sleeping in airports and in their cars, taking “hunger naps” when they can’t afford to eat, trading tips on how to keep their homework dry when living in the woods.