Can Nudging Help Students who are Homeless and Hungry?

Behavioral science offers insight into how we can help students facing hardship.

Posted Aug 07, 2017

Garry Knight/Flickr
Source: Garry Knight/Flickr

As students head to campus this fall, they must confront the hidden costs of college: books, supplies, transportation, and more. But many must also figure out how to pay for food to eat and a place to live. Unfortunately, some will struggle to cover these basic needs, forcing them to attend classes while hungry and/or homeless, reduce their course load, or withdraw from college. Although nobody will claim that nudging can undo the systemic poverty issues we face in the United States, strategies drawn from behavioral science may be able to help students experiencing hardship stay on track toward their degree.

Students Skip Meals, Sleep in Cars, and Come to Class

College basketball fans will recall Shabazz Napier, who led the University of Connecticut to two national championships and was named AAC Player of the Year. Yet despite his accomplishments, Napier may be best remembered for telling reporters on the eve of the 2014 championship game that “We do have hungry nights that we don’t have enough money to get food in.” Napier appeared to be describing food insecurity—the chronic inability or uncertainty to obtain nutritionally adequate food. If one of the NCAA's premiere athletes was going without food, how widespread could this problem be on college campuses?

According to research from Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab’s Wisconsin HOPE Lab, as many as half of all college students are at risk to experience food insecurity. In a survey of over 33,000 students at 70 community colleges across 24 states, the HOPE Lab found that almost two-thirds faced food insecurity in the past month. While community college students are about twice as likely to experience food insecurity as four-year college students, this problem exists at every type of campus. A recent report from The Urban Institute estimated that 11% of U.S. households with a four-year college student experienced food insecurity in 2015 (though this figure may be conservative). Looking at statistics from specific institutions, 45% of students at the University of Hawai’i Manoa in 2006 were food insecure or at risk of becoming so; 40% of undergraduates at the City University of New York (CUNY) experienced food insecurity in 2010; and 22% of students at Cornell University in 2015 skipped meals due to financial constraints. And facing food insecurity in college has very real consequences: according to a survey of over 3,000 California community students, those reporting food insecurity were less likely to feel confident academically, see college as worthwhile, or be interested in class, and they were more likely to intend to withdraw.

To make matters worse, many of these students also face the daunting challenge of housing insecurity or homelessness. According to the HOPE Lab, half of community college students are housing insecure and up to 14% are homeless. The outlook is even bleaker for those who were in the foster youth system, with 29% of these students homeless while enrolled in college. These figures are echoed in California, where over 32% of community college students report housing insecurity, and at CUNY, where they found that 42% of students had unstable housing in 2010.

As someone who enjoyed four years of dorm rooms and cafeteria dining, it’s nearly impossible to imagine sitting through a lecture after a night in the parking lot with just a Snickers in my stomach. But these are the issues that I now help students navigate. In my work at a wide variety of institutions, over half who respond to nudges about food and housing insecurity report that they, at least sometimes, miss meals due to money or have trouble finding a reliable place to stay. And often, these students are not aware of or are unwilling to accept the resources available to them. Effective leveraging of behavioral science could prove invaluable in getting these students connected to supports that will keep them fed, housed, and focused on school.

How Can Behavioral Science Help?

Reducing psychic costs. Tackling food and housing insecurity is still a relatively new endeavor for many colleges, and thus applying behavioral science to these problems is in its nascency. But one intriguing benefit of nudging may be the ability to reduce students’ psychic burden. Living in poverty enacts hidden costs not only in terms of money, but also time and energy. For many students, their days are booked up with classes, studying, work, and taking care of family; there’s simply no time left to complete complicated forms, chase down paperwork, and wait in long lines. A promising approach, therefore, has been to adapt the college environment to reduce these psychic costs. While progress has been made by establishing on-campus food pantries and allowing students to stay in campus housing over school vacations, a more comprehensive model has been introduced by Single Stop U.S.A. This organization partners with colleges to create an on-campus “one-stop shop” where students are screened for all possible benefits available to them, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and housing assistance, and receive financial and legal counseling as necessary. By greatly reducing the psychic burden of obtaining benefits, the Single Stop model has successfully increased college persistence, especially among some of the populations at greatest risk for food and housing insecurity: older students, those living independently, and racial/ethnic minorities.

Reducing stigma. But building great on-campus resources will be in vain if students don’t know about them or are too ashamed to use them. Food and housing insecurity often invoke feelings of guilt, shame, and embarrassment, which becomes yet another hidden cost of poverty. In our efforts to help students move past these emotions, we can learn from an initiative designed to support a much different population: incarcerated parents. MDRC, through their Behavioral Interventions to Advance Self-sufficiency (BIAS) Project, nudged these individuals to file for a reduction in their child support payments and avoid potentially tens-of-thousands of dollars in debt. Their approach normalized help-seeking via postcards which told recipients “Other parents have had courts lower their child support by $200 to $500 per month.” MDRC also attempted to reduce stigma by making no mention of incarceration in this process. These nudges, along with a few other low-cost behavioral interventions, led to an 11-percentage point increase in applications filed.

Empowering help-seeking. Alleviating stigma appears pivotal if we want students to walk into a food pantry or a Single Stop. Even filing the FAFSA—something that seems universal to many of us in higher education—can cause embarrassment or guilt to students who consider taking these funds. Empowering students to seek help, therefore, could go a long way toward easing their financial burden and allowing them to put their energy into earning a degree. An example of this approach is being piloted this fall at CUNY, in partnership with the Robin Hood Foundation: Start by Asking. As part of this citywide campaign in New York to get more public benefits into the hands of those who need them, CUNY will nudge approximately 100,000 students via text message to inform them of their eligibility for SNAP, normalize acquisition of SNAP benefits, and motivate them to apply. Various initiatives in higher education have demonstrated that nudges delivered by text message are an effective and scalable way to get students to engage in help-seeking, whether they need assistance to complete the FAFSA or pass their math class, and we would expect applying for SNAP to be no different. By helping students acquire these benefits, they should have additional resources to pay for housing, utilities, and school supplies; less hunger and anxiety to distract them from their studies; and more hope that they can persevere to graduation day.

While nudging should be but one part of a comprehensive, long-term effort toward alleviating poverty on college campuses, it shows tremendous promise to help students both quickly and inexpensively. Although we’re still exploring how behavioral science can best connect students to the resources afforded them for food and housing, these techniques should remain a valuable tool for educators and administrators looking for solutions to these problems.


Broton, K. & Goldrick-Rab, S. (2016). The dark side of college (un)affordability: Food and housing insecurity in higher education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 48(1), 16-25.

Castleman, B. L., & Page, L. C. (2016). Freshman year financial aid nudges: An experiment to increase FAFSA renewal and college persistence. Journal of Human Resources, 51(2), 389-415.

Chaparro, M. P., Zaghloul, S. S., Holck, P., & Dobbs, J. (2009). Food insecurity prevalence among college students at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Public Health Nutrition, 12, 2097-2103.