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Economic Circumstances Impacting College Students’ Mental Health

Insufficient income, improper nutrition, and inadequate housing can add unnecessary stress to a college student’s life. College tuition has been rising faster than inflation, and for many students, financial aid is just not enough to cover the hefty price tag [1]. Even with work-study jobs, students may find themselves struggling to earn enough money to afford their tuition, let alone necessities such as food and housing. Inevitably, these stresses can negatively impact students’ mental health and well-being.

Student debt is a large problem and has been demonstrated to increase student stress levels. When financial aid falls short in covering the cost of college, students are forced to take out substantial loans to pay for their education. To minimize the amount of debt students have by graduation, many rack up hours in their jobs on or off-campus. A study of UK students found that 57% of students surveyed worked regularly and a third of these students worked 20 or more hours a week on top of pursuing their studies full time [2]. In the same study, students who had poorer mental health attributed it to working long hours and paying bills.2 Another UK study found that 44% of first-year undergraduates found money management to be one of the key stressors in their lives.3 In the United States, 40% of the first-year undergraduate respondents indicated that money management caused them moderate to severe stress [4].

Student debt and inability to afford college can lead to housing insecurity. Data suggests that the greatest incidence of food and housing insecurity currently exists within the college-aged population.5 Many students have no established credit or rental history which makes it difficult for them to secure more affordable off-campus housing [1]. Housing insecurity for students from low-income backgrounds can be even worse. Whereas students from middle-class and wealthier backgrounds can ask a family member with established credit to sign as a guarantor for an off-campus living space, students from low-income backgrounds may not have that luxury if their parents or relatives do not have good credit.

Additionally, food insecurity is a large problem in student populations. In particular, students who were underrepresented minorities or who did not have access to a car but lived in off-campus apartments were more likely to be food insecure than their colleagues [6]. At the University of Hawaii at Manoa, 21% of students surveyed modified their food consumption because they did not have the resources necessary to afford both food and life essentials.7 In urban environments, where housing and food are both more expensive, a 2011 study found that 40% of students were food insecure.8 Food insecurity is linked to mental disorders such as anxiety and depression,9 and visits to food pantries may make students feel shameful and guilty about their food insecurity.9

All of these factors detrimentally impact the health of college students. Despite its importance, not enough research has been done on the issue of student stress. The stress students face due to economic circumstances can lead to more severe health problems in the future such as heart disease and digestive problems.10 Students who work long hours on top of their studies are also more likely to engage in cigarette smoking compared to their peers.2 Engaging in this behavior at a young age increases the risk of heart disease and the development of cancer.

Not only does the stress brought on by these economic factors contribute to poor mental health and put students at risk for the development of future health problems, but it can also impact school enrollment and performance. Students who have poor mental health due to economic stress are more likely to consider dropping out of school, a phenomenon that can be attributed in part to a feeling of hopelessness from the amount of debt students take on [2]. Financial stress and food insecurity are both linked to poor academic performance11,12: students who report being food insecure are 22% less likely to earn a 3.5–4.0 GPA than a 2.0–2.49 GPA [12].

Many colleges have, in response to this phenomenon, increased access to mental health services. This effort is commendable, but it may not be enough. More research must be done on the relationship between poor mental health in college students and the economic factors that surround it. Not only does the rising cost of college require further evaluation, but better financial aid programs need to be developed to meet the needs of students, and more affordable housing needs to be made more widely available. College administrations and policymakers must come together to reduce students’ economic, food, and housing insecurity in order to ensure academic success and mental health.


  1. Broton, K., & Goldrick-Rab, S. (2016). The Dark Side of College (Un)Affordability: Food and Housing Insecurity in Higher Education. Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning, 48(1), 16–25. doi: 10.1080/00091383.2016.1121081

  2. Roberts, R., Golding, J., Towell, T., & Weinreb, I. (1999). The Effects of Economic Circumstances on British Students Mental and Physical Health. Journal of American College Health, 48(3), 103–109. doi: 10.1080/07448489909595681

  3. Tyrrell, J. (1992). Sources of Stress Among Psychology Undergraduates. The Irish Journal of Psychology, 13(2), 184–192. doi: 10.1080/03033910.1992.10557878

  4. Dunkel-Schetter, C., & Lobel, M. (1990). Stress among students. New Directions for Student Services, 1990(49), 17–34. doi: 10.1002/ss.37119904904

  5. Joint Center for Housing Studies. (2019, May 24). The State of the Nation's Housing 2011. Retrieved from’s-housing-2011.

  6. Mirabitur, E., Peterson, K. E., Rathz, C., Matlen, S., & Kasper, N. (2016). Predictors of college-student food security and fruit and vegetable intake differ by housing type. Journal of American College Health, 64(7), 555–564. doi: 10.1080/07448481.2016.1192543

  7. Chaparro, M. P., Zaghloul, S. S., Holck, P., & Dobbs, J. (2009). Food insecurity prevalence among college students at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa. Public Health Nutrition, 12(11), 2097–2103. doi: 10.1017/s1368980009990735

  8. Freudenberg, N. (2011). Food Insecurity at CUNY: Results from a Survey of CUNY Undergraduate Students, Healthy CUNY Initiative, Retrieved from

  9. Food insecurity can affect your mental health. (2017, April 27). Retrieved from

  10. Stress Can Increase Your Risk for Heart Disease. (n.d.). Retrieved from suggest that the high,plaque deposits in the arteries.

  11. Hodgson, C. S., & Simoni, J. M. (1995). Graduate student academic and psychological functioning. Journal of College Student Development, 36(3), 244–253..

  12. Maroto, M. E., Snelling, A., & Linck, H. (2015). Food Insecurity Among Community College Students: Prevalence and Association With Grade Point Average. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 39(6), 515–526. doi: 10.1080/10668926.2013.850758

  13. Byrd, D. R., & Mckinney, K. J. (2012). Individual, Interpersonal, and Institutional Level Factors Associated With the Mental Health of College Students. Journal of American College Health, 60(3), 185–193. doi: 10.1080/07448481.2011.584334

  14. Patte, K. A., Qian, W., & Leatherdale, S. T. (2017). Binge drinking and academic performance, engagement, aspirations, and expectations: a longitudinal analysis among secondary school students in the COMPASS study. Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention in Canada, 37(11), 376–385. doi: 10.24095/hpcdp.37.11.02

  15. Robinson, E., & Adams, R. (2008). Housing stress and the mental health and wellbeing of families. Australian Family Relationship Clearinghouse, 12, 1–9. Retrieved from

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