If College Students Are Hungry, Should Uncle Sam Feed Them?

Since the federal government feeds students in K-12 schools via the National School Lunch Program, it should similarly feed college students who are “food insecure,” argues a new policy brief published last month by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.

According to authors Sara Goldrick-Rab, Katharine Broton, and Emily Brunjes Colo, the country loses productivity because students who are hungry underperform and therefore don’t graduate on time, if at all.

“Insufficient attention to the nutritional needs of undergraduates,” they write, “could contribute to the inadequate production of college-educated labor.”

It is funny to hear talk about “underproduction” regarding college graduates when large numbers of them work in low-skill jobs. Not long ago studies purported to show that the U.S. faced a shortage of skilled workers—that is, workers with college degrees. Nonetheless the HOPE Lab paper argues the failure to produce enough college graduates presents a serious economic problem.

It’s obvious that we have oversold higher education, and that the need for college-educated workers is mainly due to credential inflation. But let’s put that aside and focus on the paper’s claim that large numbers of college students go hungry.

The authors acknowledge there is “limited information about the extent to which undergraduates struggle to find enough food to eat.” What information they have comes primarily from a survey administered to more than 4,000 students at ten community colleges in seven states. The results: “Half of all respondents were at least marginally food insecure over the past 30 days…. More than one in four respondents ate less than they felt they should, and 22 percent said that they had gone hungry due to lack of money.”

From that survey, the study concludes, “The most prevalent challenge facing community college students appears to be their ability to eat balanced meals, which research suggests may affect their cognitive functioning.”

One problem with this is that such surveys are not very accurate. People often give answers that they think are either what the researchers want to hear, or that might help themselves. From the survey responses we do not know that any of the students in the sample actually went hungry because they couldn’t afford food. We only know that quite a few said they were “food insecure.”

That’s not all of the data. HOPE Lab also surveyed more than 2,000 Pell Grant recipients in Wisconsin and found that 71 percent “reported that they had changed their food shopping or eating habits due to lack of funds.”

Again, responses to survey questions are not the same as hard data, but even so, changes in shopping or eating habits hardly indicate a serious problem.

Nevertheless, let’s assume for the sake of argument that a significant number of college students do eat less than they think they should, or even on occasion, go hungry. What conclusion follows from that premise?

To the authors, the conclusion is that we should expand the federal government’s National School Lunch Program (NSLP). They advocate expanding NSLP “to all public and private not-for-profit colleges and universities, and students of all ages.” Doing that would “provide food assistance to approximately 7 million Pell recipients.”

They admit they don’t know how best to add all those students to the welfare ranks, but suggest two different sorts of pilot projects. One would give money directly to the colleges, and require them to provide free or low-cost lunches to students who have Pell Grants. The other would provide food vouchers to the students. That approach would necessitate regulations to compel institutions to have “low-cost, healthy options” for the students.

The authors estimate the cost of their program at some $4 billion per year, but maintain that it would be a worthwhile “investment.”

My conclusion, however, is quite different.

Instead of another top-down program that relies on a shower of money from Uncle Sam and more federal regulations, the better approach would be voluntary efforts by “little platoons” in society, to find the best way to feed college students who really cannot afford to eat well enough.

There are already charitable food banks at many campuses – many which operate under a national network called the College and University Food Bank Alliance. And as the HOPE Lab report states, “staff and faculty are reaching into their own pockets to provide lunch money to struggling students.”

The great thing about private efforts to alleviate hunger (and all other social problems) is that it is far more difficult for people to “game the system” and make off with undeserved benefits, when the money comes from individuals and is given out personally. If there is a good reason to expand these food banks, and/or discover other means to assist those students who do their best but can’t eat well, then advocates for student “food security” ought to take their case to America’s huge philanthropic community.

If we instead plunge ahead into another expansion of federal welfare, increased waste is one sure result. The Pell Grant system is already rife with it. Professor Richard Vedder points out in this article for the National Association of Scholars that large numbers of students who receive Pell Grant money are not poor at all. Pell Grants have become, he writes, “just another entitlement handed out to a majority of those attending college.”

And the proposed expansion of NSLP to cover college students who qualify as “needy” will only give further momentum to the harmful idea that college degrees are an entitlement. Taxpayers must already cover the prodigious tuition expense for many students who are not serious about learning; this idea increases that cost to cover food. After that it will be something else that supposedly prevents students from completing their degrees. That’s the logic of welfare.

Fifty years ago we had a higher education system where college didn’t cost much for those who thought it a worthwhile pursuit. Some of the students came from poor families, but they usually persevered without free food from the federal government.

Now—after the vast expansion of federal aid for college—we have huge numbers of weak and indifferent students who pursue degrees (or maybe just the “college experience”) and an expectation that the government will keep increasing the largesse so we can “produce” the greatest number of college grads.

Unfortunately arguing against the Nanny State leads progressives to impugn your motives. When I told a reporter my reasons for opposing NSLP expansion and he included them in his story, one of the authors of the HOPE Lab paper Tweeted that I “want students to starve.”

No, I don’t want anyone to starve. I just don’t agree that another expansion of the federal government, in a field it should never have entered in the first place, is the solution to this dubious problem.