For many young Americans, college is a time of learning new subjects, experiencing dorm living, attending weekend parties, and enjoying plenty of dining hall food. But, for an underrepresented section of the college community, simply finding a place to sleep and a meal to eat is a struggle that distracts from academics and makes campus recreation near impossible.
Homelessness and extreme financial insecurity in college is an issue that affects a surprising number of American students around the U.S. and may only grow as tuition and fees at schools around the country increase.
In one study, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab and the Healthy Minds Study found up to 13% of the 4,300 college students they surveyed at 10 community colleges around the U.S. had experienced homelessness in the past year, the group reported in The New York Times. In fact, 20% of the students surveyed also said that they had gone hungry at some point in the month prior to the survey.
College students experiencing homelessness, food insecurity, and severe financial need often have more trouble excelling in the classroom, experiencing college life with their peers, and ultimately staying in college long enough to graduate.
According to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, about 56,000 students self-reported as homeless on the annual student aid form. However, the number of homeless students may be much higher. Many students may not be filling out the FAFSA at all or students may not be reporting homelessness out of secrecy. Additionally, most schools do not keep data on student homelessness.
Although some students are reporting themselves as homeless on federal aid forms, it takes a significant amount of evidence to prove this status, The Washington Post reported. Students are required to submit paperwork showing they are homeless, signed off by a high school counselor or “federally funded shelter.” These types of proof, which would enable financial aid for homeless students, can be more difficult to get in the middle of college, and for many, homelessness may be a fluid circumstance.
The New York Times notes that many students also have to prove that their parents make a low enough income, or that they have an independent status. Some even require students to keep a high enough GPA to retain certain aid, which can be difficult when students are understandably distracted by more substantial issues, such as food security.
The diverse and unique situations may lead to difficulties for classifying homelessness on campus and affect the students’ lives significantly. For example, a formerly homeless college student writing for VICE explained her situation, noting that there are a number of ways students may experience homelessness. Some students may spend nights at the library, others quietly crash on friends’ sofas, and some — like her — live in strict transitional houses where guests and alcohol are banned.
Although it’s difficult to track the exact number of homeless college students, the number is likely increasing. Rolling Stone noted that public university debt has increased by about 400% since 1980 and students in 2014 carried an average of $10,000 more in student debt since 2004, with $28,950. As expenses increase, experts expect the amount of homelessness on campus to as well because these increases in price and debt are also increases of burden on many students around the U.S. These can affect homeless and financially insecure students the most, making continuing college impossible or pushing already financially strapped students to homelessness and/or food insecurity.
An increasing number of homeless high schoolers will likely also lead to growth in the homeless college population, The Washington Post explained. The Department of Education put the number of homeless children at 1.3 million for the 2013-2014 academic year, a significant rise in the past seven years.
Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, said that this would translate to more homeless college students, as “the overall population of students who are homeless trying to transition from high school to college is significant and growing.”
Homelessness is a dangerous barrier to education for these students and will likely only reduce opportunities toward upward mobility. With a majority of U.S. jobs expected to require higher education by 2020, homeless students struggling to graduate will only reduce the number jobs and level of pay that these students can achieve later in life.
Although the issue of homelessness in higher education is growing, many are working to help the affected students and address the larger problem. In late 2015, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, reintroduced legislation to change the financial aid requirements for proof, making it easier for homeless students to get federal student aid.
“For many students, higher education can be a ticket to the middle class, so it is vitally important that students from all walks of life have the chance to go to college, further their education, and succeed,” Murray told the Post. This legislation, would also help students with housing during school breaks and provide support on campus.
While this legislation has yet to become law, there are a number of other efforts helping homeless students now. Programs such as the The College and University Food Bank Alliance help students facing hunger and poverty on campus, while technology like the Columbia University app Swipes allows simple meal sharing on campus among students. These also provide an opportunity for students who have more to help out their peers in need.
NAEHCY also provides students with a number of resources that range from tips for accurately completing the FAFSA to podcasts on college access for students experiencing homelessness.
Another major factor that helps students with housing or food insecurities to complete school or get into college has been athletics. As Sports Illustrated explained, America’s Promise Alliance and Tufts University found that homeless students in primary or secondary school are 87% more likely than their peers to stop attending school. However, athletics can provide a reason for students to stay in school and may lead to a path for graduation or college scholarship for homeless students.
But whether through independent organizations, federal legislation, or student-made apps, efforts to solve homelessness on campus and help students in need can allow these students earn a better education, a college degree, a career, and ultimately, a better future and life.