Minnesota college students increasingly facing basic economic, mental health challenges

Joo Ning Lim
Nov 09, 2022
No student should have to go hungry or worry about having stable housing. But Minnesota’s college students are increasingly finding it difficult to cover basic expenses. Not having enough food, housing, and other basic needs can severely limit college students’ ability to fully participate in higher education and complete their credentials. At the same time, more students are reporting mental health issues and higher levels of stress. 

Basic needs for college students are holistic and include food, housing, internet access, school supplies, child care, and more. When students lack access to these resources, they experience basic needs insecurity. Basic needs insecurity and mental health challenges can lead to poor academic performance, lower enrollment and graduation rates, and harm students’ physical, mental, and cognitive well-being. 

These trends underline the importance of taking policy action to maintain and expand economic supports and mental health programs to ensure that every college student -- no matter what institution they attend, their income, or where they live -- has the ability to complete their education and receive help in times of need.  

Students are facing basic needs insecurity and mental health challenges like never before 

College students in Minnesota struggled with meeting their basic needs even before the pandemic. A survey in 2018 and 2019 showed that around 40 percent of respondents from Minnesota State Colleges and Universities were unable to afford balanced meals, and most respondents reported eating less, skipping meals, or going hungry because they could not afford food. In the same survey, 48 percent faced housing challenges and did not have safe, secure, and affordable housing to live in, and more than 15 percent experienced homelessness in the previous year. More than 18 percent reported experiencing increases in their rent or mortgage payments that they were unable to afford. Some students reported challenges in affording more than one basic need. At the University of Minnesota, students also reported experiencing food shortage and not having enough money to buy more food. Importantly, lack of food and housing are not the only facets of basic needs insecurity; students also struggle to get health care, child care, transportation, and access to technology. 

The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated basic needs insecurity and mental health challenges among higher education students. In spring 2020, more students reported facing mental health issues and higher stress levels compared to data from 2018. And several colleges in Minnesota reported a higher number of visits to their food pantries after the pandemic started.  

College students from marginalized groups are at greater risk of experiencing food and housing insecurity, including Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students; low-income students; those who identify as nonbinary or transgender; former foster youth; and returning citizens who were previously incarcerated. International students and DACA students (also known as Dreamers) who do not qualify for federal financial aid through Pell Grants or emergency assistance also disproportionately rely on resources like food pantries and free counseling services. As diversity among students is increasing in higher education, institutions must strive to address the changing array of students’ basic and health care needs. 

Students who lack food, housing and other basic needs report poorer mental and physical health outcomes and higher stress levels, which can negatively impact their academic success, retention, and graduation rates. University of Minnesota students who reported facing a particular health or personal issue also said it affected their academic performance, according to a 2021 College Student Health Survey Report. Disability, homelessness, lack of mental health care, and sleep difficulties caused the greatest harm to students’ academic performance. 

Higher education institutions have some services in place to address students’ needs 

The University of Minnesota and Minnesota State have established services to address basic needs insecurity and student mental health, including food pantries, partnerships with community organizations that focus on food and housing, and emergency grants for students.  

In 2020, Governor Tim Walz signed a Hunger-Free Campus Act to address food insecurity among students across community and technical colleges. Campuses must have food distribution systems including a food pantry or partnership with local food banks, educate students on services to reduce food insecurity, host a hunger awareness event each year, have a campus hunger task force, and provide emergency funds for students. In 2021, the Minnesota Legislature expanded Hunger Free Campus grants to all public and private non-profit institutions in Minnesota. Since the program started, 19 colleges have been designated as Hunger Free Campuses.  

Higher ed institutions also provide mental health support for students through counseling or academic advising centers, health services, and disability services. The University of Minnesota has an online resource hub with information and resources for mental health care. Many institutions also have student-led organizations and initiatives to raise awareness on mental health issues.  

However, many students still do not receive the care they need. For example, in 2019 at four-year colleges in Minnesota, only 9 percent of students needing food support through Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits received them, and just 5 percent of students received housing assistance. These figures are substantially below the number of students reporting challenges affording food and housing, implying that many students in need did not know about the resources available to them or how to apply for different types of aid.  

Every college and university could support their students by having a centralized web page with basic needs and mental health resources to inform all students of resources available to them.  

Need for funding to support ongoing and new services

Basic needs insecurity and mental health challenges present significant barriers to students’ success in college. However, funding levels do not meet the needs of students today. Investments are needed to sustain ongoing initiatives, and also to establish new services to address the unique needs of students who are not currently well served, including students who are parents, American Indian students, low-income students, BIPOC students, and international students.  

Minnesota policymakers should recognize and respond to the barriers students face in completing higher education. Minnesota should prioritize funding basic needs programs and mental health services so that every college student can succeed regardless of their income or where they live.