Students struggling to make ends meet can be a significant reason why poverty rates tend to be higher in college towns than elsewhere.
New data from the American Community Survey estimates how much poverty stems from students in college towns.
This is most noticeable in smaller cities. For example, Mankato’s poverty rate – currently at about 25 percent – would likely drop in half if students were excluded from the typical poverty rate calculations. But the Minneapolis rate would likely only fall by about 2 percentage points.
In Wisconsin, Whitewater would see a 20 percentage point drop in its poverty rate and Platteville’s rate would drop about 15 percentage points, but Milwaukee’s rate would barely budge.
The U.S. Census Bureau released this data earlier this month, but only included calculations for cities and counties with 10,000 or more people and where the poverty rate decline was statistically significant.
There are some notable college towns in Minnesota missing from this list, such as Northfield, Bemidji, Morris, St. Peter, St. Joseph and Marshall. (Morris, St. Joseph and St. Peter are too small to meet the population threshold to be included in the census study.)
Poverty rates don’t include people living in group quarters, such as college dorms, nursing homes, jails and prisons. However, any students living in off-campus housing would be included.
In Minnesota, two small college towns – St. Joseph and Morris – have the highest poverty rates among cities with a population of 5,000 or more. In fact, most of the cities in the top 20 have at least one institution of higher education.
The new census data adjusting these poverty rates to exclude students sheds light for policymakers when deciding how to combat poverty. Student poverty is generally for a limited duration, unlike poverty in the general population.
Research by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab dating back to 2005 has documented the extent of food and housing insecurity among college students. A 2016 report found that 30 percent of students said they had been hungry but couldn’t afford to eat, and that this was a consistent struggle.
That report and a larger study released earlier this year by the same researchers found that the problem is most severe at community colleges. The study found that two in three community college students are food insecure and about half struggled to pay for housing.
The report also showed that food and housing insecurity is prevalent everywhere, not just in places that also have high poverty rates in the general population.