Basic needs insecurity describes situations during which a person lacks or has inconsistent access to things needed for human wellbeing, such as adequate food and shelter. Basic needs insecurity is commonly divided into two categories: food insecurity and housing insecurity.  

Food insecurity is defined as a “limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe food, or that ability to acquire such food in a socially acceptable manner.  The most extreme form is often accompanied by a physiological sensation of hunger”¹. 

Housing insecurity is defined as including “a broad set of challenges such as the inability to pay rent or utilities, or the need to move frequently”¹. Both these basic needs insecurities are widespread issues.  

Unique Challenges for University Students 

According to The Hope Center’s 2019 report¹, students of higher education face particular challenges when it comes to having their basic needs met, leading them to experience basic needs insecurity at higher rates than the general population. Various aspects of the student experience leave this population vulnerable in unique ways.  

Barriers to food security students face include² 

  • Sudden expenses stressing already tight budgets  
  • Time when students are balancing school and work 
  • Transportation and access to affordable food within the reach of campus
  • Limited food storage space in dorms 
  • The requirements in qualifying for food assistance 

Barriers to accessing support include²,³ 

  • Stigma 
  • Perceiving their situation as not being dire enough to require assistance 
  • Simple lack of knowledge about what resources are available 

While specific needs and the rates at which they affect the student population vary, what is clear from the research is that students of higher education are particularly vulnerable to basic needs insecurities. As such, institutions are looking to work to bridge these gaps, develop new strategies, and engage with literature on the subject. At George Mason, the Student Support and Advocacy Center (SSAC) is working to aid students who are experiencing basic needs insecurity or are otherwise in crisis. This website provides an overview of services provided.  

Frequently Asked Questions

How common is food insecurity nationally?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that for the year 2021, over 13% of households in the country were food insecure at some point during the last year prior to answering the survey.

How common is food insecurity on college campuses?

In 2019, The Hope Center found that 45% of students who participated in their survey had been food insecure in the last 30 days¹.

How common is housing insecurity nationally?

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services reports that in 2019, over 37 million households were housing insecure; their description of the term includes circumstances such as living in overcrowded spaces, having to move frequently, being unable to pay rent, and spending most income on housing.

How common is housing insecurity on college campuses?

The Hope Center found that students were actually more likely to face some sort of housing insecurity during their study than they are to have their needs met. Their survey found that 60% of students at two-year institutions and 48% of students at four-year institutions faced some sort of housing insecurity, and over 10% at both types of institutions were found to have faced a period of some type of homelessness. In their survey, the most common shape housing needs took was that of a sudden rent or mortgage increase. Students also reported incidents of needing to leave a living situation due to unsafe conditions¹.



  1. Goldrick-Rab S., Baker-Smith C., Coca V., Looker E., Williams T. (2019). College and university basic needs insecurity: A national #RealCollege survey report. The Hope Center. 
  2. Richards, R., Stokes, N., Banna, J., Cluskey, M., Bergen, M., Thomas, V., Bushnell, M., & Christensen, R. (2023). A Comparison of Experiences with Factors Related to Food Insecurity between College Students Who Are Food Secure and Food Insecure: A Qualitative Study. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, 123(3), 438-453.e2. 
  3. Zein, A. E., Vilaro, M. J., Shelnutt, K. P., Walsh-Childers, K., & Mathews, A. (2022). Obstacles to university food pantry use and student-suggested solutions: A qualitative study. PLOS ONE, 17(5), e0267341. 
  4. USDA ERS – Frequency of Food Insecurity. (2022). 
  5. Housing Instability – Healthy People 2030. (n.d.).