Study Shows Food Insecurity During University Years Linked to Lower Graduation Rate

A study led by a researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health found that food insecurity among university students is associated with lower university graduation rates and lower chances of obtaining a bachelor’s or advanced degree.

Food insecurity is a household’s lack of consistent access to adequate food resources. The study examined a nationally representative sample of 1,574 university students in 1999–2003 to assess whether they lived in a household experiencing food insecurity. They found that nearly 15% of the students qualified as food insecure.

Following up on data on educational attainment through 2015–2017, the researchers found that students in the food-insecure group were more than 40% less likely to graduate from university and more than 60% less likely to achieve a graduate or professional degree.

Food-insecure students whose parents and grandparents had not attended university fared even worse in educational attainment—less than half graduated from university. The study appears online in the issue of Public Health Nutrition.

‘These results suggest that we really need robust policies to address food insecurity among university students, especially now with the higher food insecurity levels observed during the COVID-19 pandemic,’ says study lead author Julia Wolfson, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of International Health at the Bloomberg School.

For the study, Wolfson and her colleagues examined data from a long-running US government-sponsored project called the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, which has followed a nationally representative set of several thousand families in the US since 1968, using annual—or, since 1997, biennial—surveys to collect sociodemographic, economic, and health information on family members.

The researchers drew from this dataset a sample of 1,574 individuals who were enrolled in higher education at any point during the 1999–2003 surveys and were still being tracked in the 2015 or 2017 surveys. They classified a student as food-insecure if they or their parents reported being food-insecure at any point when they were university students in 1999–2003. Most of the students in the sample attended university while living at home as dependents in a household.

Even after adjusting for other factors linked to higher or lower educational attainment, Wolfson and colleagues found a strong inverse association between household food insecurity and educational attainment. Students from food-insecure households were 43% less likely to graduate from university, including an associate’s degree; 43% less likely to attain a bachelor’s degree;  and 61% less likely to attain a graduate or professional degree non-food-insecure students.

The analysis suggested that being a ‘first-generation student’ —the first family to attend university—was another factor strongly associated with lower educational attainment. While 76 % of students who were ‘food secure’ and not first-generation students graduated from university, only 59% of food secure but first-generation students graduated from university—and less than half, only 47%, of food-insecure first-generation students graduated.

Wolfson said: ‘I thought to be the first to examine food insecurity’s effects on educational attainment in a study that tracks data for the same group of people over time. These results suggest that food insecurity is not just associated with but a contributing cause of lower educational attainment.’