FRIDAY, Jan. 31, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- Nearly six in 10 students at an Oregon university could not afford to get enough healthy food at one point in the school year, a problem that threatens their school performance as well as their physical and emotional health, researchers say.
Rising tuition fees, low incomes and a lack of food and social support systems -- such as food stamps -- are some of the reasons for this high level of "food insecurity" among students, according to the study authors.
"Based on other research that's been done, we expected some amount of food concerns among college students," Daniel Lopez-Cevallos, associate director of research at Oregon State University's Center for Latino/Latina Studies and Engagement, said in a university news release. "But it was shocking to find food insecurity of this severity."
The researchers surveyed 354 students at a different Oregon university and found that 59 percent reported having difficulty getting enough healthy food. That figure is about four times higher than the nearly 15 percent of U.S. households that report lacking enough food and having fear of hunger.
Having fair to poor health, a lower grade point average, and low income were among the factors associated with food concerns among the college students. Having a job did not eliminate the risk. Students who reported food concerns worked an average of 18 hours a week -- some worked as many as 42 hours a week -- but their financial demands more than consumed that income.
In the past three decades, the cost of higher education in the United States has increased more than inflation, the cost of living and medical expenses, according to the authors. The study was released online this month in advance of print publication in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
The researchers also said their findings likely apply to colleges and universities across the United States.
"For past generations, students living on a lean budget might have just considered it part of the college experience, a transitory thing," lead author Megan Patton-Lopez, of the Benton County Health Department in Oregon, said in the news release.
"But rising costs of education are now affecting more people," she added. "And for many of these students who are coming from low-income families and attending college for the first time, this may be a continuation of food insecurity they've known before. It becomes a way of life, and they don't have as many resources to help them out."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more about college health and safety.