Combating Student Homelessness

By Brittany Bieber and Luna Nguyen 

A recent California State University study reported a staggering statistic: 1 in 10 of its students is homeless, meaning these students lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence, and 1 in 4 has experienced food insecurity during their time at school. While conversations about college affordability have largely centered on tuition rates, the unprecedented CSU study underscores that non-tuition expenses are an additional barrier for the neediest students. Equitable access to college for all students requires better understanding this population in order to provide them with targeted and comprehensive support services that not only solve their lack of housing, but also provide access to, for example, food programs, counseling, and free textbooks.

These numbers are a reality check, not only for California colleges and universities, but for postsecondary institutions across the country. In 2013, over 58,000 students reported on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) that they were homeless or at risk of being homeless. This number likely grossly underestimates the true figure; as noted in the CSU study, many displaced students do not consider themselves homeless because of the misconceptions and stigma attached to the term. A student living out of her car or sleeping on a different family member’s couch every week might not report that she’s experienced homelessness. Moreover, moving away to college often comes with significant costs, and some students may forgo housing to make ends meet. This information is not captured by FAFSA responses. 

Studies show that students who live below the poverty line complete college at much lower rates than their wealthier peers due to compounding factors such as unreliable transportation, the need to work full time or take care of family members, a paucity of non-tuition financial aid, and the need to take multiple remediation courses before being allowed into credit-bearing courses because of being behind in math and English. Imagine if, in addition to all of these obstacles you also had to worry about where your next meal would come from and where you would sleep? While data on the effects of homelessness on college completion rates is virtually nonexistent, a recent report based on a survey of nearly 12,000 California community college students documents the struggles students like these face. One student reported that, “Financial aid helps me so much; however, I still am homeless because it is not enough to pay for housing, even if you work part-time.” 

In its report, CSU cites several factors that contribute to homelessness: on-campus barriers like lack of awareness of and funding for relief programs, shortage of affordable housing, the difficulty of utilizing available resources, such as food stamps, on campus, and barriers to receiving financial aid. 

In the near-term, institutions need to both have and promote a place on campus for displaced students to go when they need help finding reliable housing and other aid. But how can we combat student homelessness in the long-term? First, we need to better understand the scope of the problem by improving our data. The Department of Education tracks homelessness for K-12 students nationally. But once a student leaves the K-12 system he falls off the radar, only supported by a patchwork of caring faculty and administrators willing to seek him out. The Department of Education needs to keep a national eye on student homelessness beyond high school. Furthermore, following CSU’s lead, colleges need to find innovative ways to identify at-risk students so they can provide vital services like temporary housing and information on more permanent residences.

In addition, our financial aid programs must go beyond tuition expenses to consider the entire cost of attendance. Providing aid to low-income students for non-tuition costs, such as transportation, books, food, and housing is critical for both decreasing student homelessness rates and closing the achievement gap. Despite California’s generous financial aid program, the most any 2016-17 Cal Grant recipient living in poverty will get for non-tuition costs is $1,670--a paltry amount that, had it kept pace with inflation, would be worth more than $6,000 today. Bolstering this Cal Grant “access award” would provide better assurance that college students don't go hungry and have a reliable place to sleep at night, as a Coalition of more than 20 diverse organizations have supported.

Finally, colleges can also work to remove on-campus barriers via public service campaigns that explain what qualifies as displacement and what resources, like emergency on- and off-campus housing, are available to students experiencing housing crises. Colleges should feel an urgency in removing the stigma around housing instability so that these students are able to succeed, in addition to providing a safe and informative space for homeless or near homeless students. 

We applaud CSU for seeking to better understand an underserved and overlooked population. This is the first step toward ensuring that students have access to support services that enable them to succeed in college. It is now time for all parts of our postsecondary education system to rise to the same challenge