Commentary: How Can College Students Study If They’re Homeless?

College homelessness in America is at an all-time high. iStock Photo.

By Celia Patricia Sanchez Zelaya, UnidosUS Líderes Avanzando Fellow

It’s never easy to be a college student. You’re on your own, dealing with a new social life and academic expectations, maybe holding down a side job. It’s even harder if you don’t have a place to live.

According to a 2018 study by the Wisconsin Hope Lab, a center for research and activism on equity in higher education, 36% of students found themselves housing insecure in the last year. This means they were either living in overcrowded homes, unable to pay rent, having difficulty paying utility bills, or living in homeless shelters or on the street. That’s one in 10, an all-time high. Given this country’s socio-economic stratification, students of color are often the ones who suffer most.

We need a comprehensive solution to ensure university students can focus on achieving professional and financial success rather than worry where they’ll sleep at night. As a student of Urban Studies and Planning and Political Science who has served as a member of the University of California, San Diego’s student government and now as a public policy fellow with UnidosUS Lideres Avanzando program, I’ve been learning why this is and what we can do about it.

At first, I wanted to blame universities for pushing the boundaries by enrolling more students than they can possibly house, but through my research, I’m learning it’s more complex. Historically, most college and universities in the United States guaranteed all students two years of on-campus residency. But today, many of them are rescinding this policy, struggling to squeeze two or three students into what were once single-occupancy dorm rooms. Those who can’t get a coveted bed in a dorm are forced to look for off-campus solutions where affordable rentals are often limited.

Experts say it’s hard to tell why this problem is on the rise. In a 2017 article from the Sinclair Broadcast Group’s digital news outlet Circa, Barbara Duffield, the executive director of Schoolhouse Connection, a national organization dedicated to helping homeless youth, said she suspects that even a decade later, the recession has something to do with it.

“The recovery from the recession hasn’t really reached the poorest of families yet, so some of the families who are struggling the most haven’t seen the benefits of that recovery,” she told Circa.

Other contributors could be that universities have been working hard to enroll low-income students without much of a plan for how to accommodate their housing. While larger enrollment can generate funds for new facilities, construction takes time, and often universities don’t know about a student’s housing status until after admission.

Líderes Avanzando Fellow Celia Patricia Sanchez Zelaya studies political science and urban planning at University of California San Diego.

California’s Housing Crisis

My state of California has been hit especially hard by college homelessness. The State Assembly Speaker’s Office of Research and Floor Analysis notes that one in four students in community college, as well as 11% at the CSU (California State University) and 5% of students in University of California schools have experienced homelessness.

The UC system is preparing to admit 15,000 more students within three years, while lowering housing guarantees for new students from four years to two years. At UC Santa Cruz, affordable housing in the area has become so limited that administrators have been asking faculty to take students into their homes. Of course, they can only take in so many. Lots of other students get stuck without a viable solution and find themselves forced to couch surf, or live in their cars, on the streets, or in the woods nearby.

And since affordable housing is becoming a problem for all many U.S. residents, applying for and obtaining low-income and affordable housing is difficult. There may be a waiting list to get into these programs, and they usually require proof of income, a permanent address, and other documentation that’s hard to come by if you’re wandering the streets.

Housing was one of the reasons UC Irvine rescinded acceptances for about 500 students just two months before fall term in 2017. It sought to mitigate the problem by offering a first-come, first-serve enrollment program for in-state, middle-income commuter students. In another desperate stop-gap effort, California State Assemblyman Marc Berman (D-Palo Alto)introduced Assembly Bill 302, a measure to allow college students to live in cars and vans they park on campus lots, provided they are in good academic standing and have their enrollment fees paid.

Revisiting Federal Policies

Under conditions like these, it strikes me as absurd that students be expected to focus on their studies, and it underlines the need to deal with this at the federal level. Although some students rely on FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) for their financial aid, when Cost of Attendance is calculated, it may not be reflective of their true situation because their finances may appear to be tied to that of their families. Those who try to become independent, have to navigate a lot of bureaucracy to do it.

One way to start addressing this cohort of homelessness is to the reevaluate the Higher Education Act. Signed in 1965 during the Civil Rights Movement, this piece of federal legislation “to strengthen the educational resources of our colleges and universities and to provide financial assistance for students in postsecondary and higher education.” One of the provisions of that act created the Pell grant, which was to cover 79% of college expenses for students who are low-income, but in this current academic year it covered only 18%. This could be bolstered by creating a pilot program in which more federal funds are put into that grant and earmarked for housing. The progress could be evaluated by gathering information on campuses across the nation through official student surveys the quality and current housing situations.

New Efforts, New Ideas

The state of Massachusetts is taking matters into its own hands by investing $120,000 into student housing programs at its universities. This pilot will provide housing needs for 20 students in need of stable housing during their college careers, and the state expects more funding to be allotted in next year’s budget. And in Takoma, Washington, ranked by the Economic Policy Institute as having a cost of living 10.5% of the national average, the city’s housing authority has redirected some of its federal funds to subsidize the cost of housing for college students.

Initiatives like these are a big step in the right direction. As an emerging activist, I look forward to engaging university and elected leaders on this issue. If we want the young people in our community to benefit from an education to grow their lives and give back to the community as they build a more productive and prosperous world, then we need to pay attention to where they’re going to live through the college experience.



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