UW News

March 1, 2018

Tri-campus survey aims to identify student struggles with housing, food costs

UW News


The UW Campus Food Pantry supplies free food to anyone with a Husky ID. It's open every other Wednesday during winter quarter.

The UW Campus Food Pantry supplies free food to anyone with a Husky ID. It’s open every other Wednesday during winter quarter.


In a region as expensive as the Puget Sound, making ends meet affects college students, too.

Rent, utilities and food can run into the hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars a month – and for students without the means, it’s a daunting and sometimes compromising challenge.

Urban@UW is trying to learn more about the situations facing students. From now through March 16, a survey is available for students ages 18 or older at all three University of Washington campuses. The voluntary survey is confidential.

Organizers say the information is vital to learning more about how students confront housing and food insecurity.

“It’s a broad perception and assumption that students in post-secondary education don’t have an issue with meeting basic needs,” said Rachel Fyall, an assistant professor of public policy in the Evans School and faculty chair of Urban@UW’s Homelessness Research Initiative. “In the Puget Sound region, we have experienced exponential increases in the cost of living, mostly associated with housing costs, but there’s been no systematic effort to understand how that affects students.”

Urban@UW is an interdisciplinary effort to tackle city issues through research, teaching and community collaboration. Last fall, faculty involved in the Homelessness Research Initiative debuted The Doorway Project, a quarterly café, with outreach services, targeted at homeless youth and the University District neighborhood as a whole. The most recent pop-up café, held Feb. 25, served more than 120 people in the parking lot of the University Heights Center. The next is scheduled April 22 in the same location.

The housing and food survey is open to any UW student age 18 or older.

The housing and food survey is open to any UW student age 18 or older. It closes March 16.

As part of the research initiative, Fyall is leading the UW student survey, along with Lynne Manzo, an associate professor of landscape architecture, and Christine Stevens, an associate professor at the Nursing and Healthcare Leadership Program at UW Tacoma.

The idea for the survey grew from the same 2016 faculty summit that launched the research initiative. Assembled with the help of student focus groups, as well as faculty and staff members, the survey asks a series of questions about housing and food costs, frequency of moves, and the resources students use to meet their needs, from campus food pantries to financial assistance programs.

The survey also is similar to one that Stevens conducted at UW Tacoma five years ago. That survey estimated that nearly one-third of the Tacoma student body was “food insecure,” as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and 10 percent met federal education law criteria for homelessness. The data from that survey ultimately led, through the UW Tacoma Office of Equity & Inclusion, to the creation of a food pantry, which receives 500 to 700 individual visits a month, Stevens said. Following the survey, the Department of Student Engagement hired a social worker and two interns to manage emergency aid to students, thanks to the involvement of various campus partners.

What interventions might emerge from the new, tri-campus survey are unknown, Fyall said. A follow-up study to interview students struggling with these challenges, for which Fyall and her colleagues have applied for funding, could reveal more about how students are coping, and lead to some additional resources from the administration.

“We can’t work on the problem without having the data,” she said.

Each campus population is different, Stevens added. Eventual solutions could address specific needs, possibly changing how the university constructs financial aid packages, provides emergency aid, or allocates additional funding to broaden services in the food pantry such as culturally appropriate offerings.

“Even with all the things we have to provide access into universities, it’s still not enough for certain populations of students,” Stevens said. “There’s inequity among our population, and it’s our role to address that inequity. We’re changing our society, because there will be more educated people in our community. These students aren’t asking for anything except for a really good education, and it shouldn’t be harder for some students than others.”