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How colleges are trying to address homelessness among students

“What kept them from being successful in the classroom had nothing to do with the classroom”

The entrance to Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton Florida, featuring a sign and a grouping of palm trees.
Florida Atlantic University runs Educate Tomorrow, a program focused on student who are homeless or foster children, and has dramatically improved their graduation rates.

When Sara heard she was accepted to Florida Atlantic University in 2017, she was happy and excited, like so many high school seniors receiving acceptance letters. She wasn’t a bad student by any means, but wasn’t the valedictorian, either, so she was grateful for the opportunity. She planned to study criminal justice, and was thrilled about moving into the dorms. But unlike many of her fellow students, Sara wasn’t sure how any of her educational expenses—especially housing—would be covered, because she had to pay for it all herself.

Sara (who asked that only her first name be used for this article, to protect her privacy) was in foster care until she was 16, when she was placed with a family in Pembroke Pines, Florida. When she applied for college, her foster parents said that if she didn’t continue to live at home, they wouldn’t support her financially. Sara made the choice to go to FAU, which was an hour away, and since she didn’t want to commute, she decided to be fully independent and live on her own.

Sara, now 21, is part of a growing population of students at community colleges and four-year universities facing housing insecurity and homelessness, which puts them at great risk of failing to graduate. For students facing housing insecurity and homelessness today, the challenges go beyond being scrappy and surviving on the cheap, says Joe Murray, an assistant dean at FAU. Today’s students struggle with expenses and levels of precariousness that far exceed what students in previous generations faced, and that’s especially true when it comes to housing.

“Just think about something as simple as move-in day,” he says. “All these parents come with U-Hauls full of stuff for their kid’s dorm rooms, and then you have a foster youth with a garbage bag of clothes, the only thing they may own.”

Much of the stereotypical college experience centers around living spaces, such as a student’s first dorm room or first rental apartment shared with friends. But colleges are increasingly admitting more and more students like Sara, who don’t have the resources to pay for housing. That’s led to more programs like FAU’s Educate Tomorrow, which has helped her and other students who are at high risk of being sidetracked from their education by housing issues.

Murray says that of the school’s 30,000-plus students, roughly 100 to 150 are foster children or were previously homeless, and 77 were enrolled in Educate Tomorrow last year. It’s indicative of how the homeless problem, which worsened during the recession, has only been exacerbated by a lack of housing supply, which is forcing rents up and pushing renters out of their homes.

FAU’s program helps students like Sara navigate everything from applying for loans to providing a $500 stipend to decorate their dorm rooms. Since launching in 2014, the program has helped raise the graduation rate of this segment of the student population to 46 percent, compared to the national average of roughly 4 percent. Murray says he won’t rest until that rate is 100 percent.

“They have no other safety net,” he says. “If they’re not graduating from college, they’re back on the streets and the narratives aren’t good. They don’t have parents to move back in with.”

Sara found the program particularly useful when figuring out her own housing situation.

“The biggest challenge was just figuring out how to navigate student life in general,” she says. “All the paperwork that comes with financial aid and applications, it can be scary if you don’t have someone to guide you.”

That guidance enabled Sara to become self-sufficient, something that proves difficult for many students in her scenario, who often face uncertainty and housing insecurity. Through Educate Tomorrow, she was able to navigate financial aid applications with a counselor and land a job at the student union. That gig, along with student aid and loans, helps her pay for her education and room and board.

“The guidance is there,” she says. “Fall semester freshman year, I didn’t know what I was going to do, and didn’t do my best in class, and that’s when I leaned on them the most for support.”

Homelessness in higher education

At universities and community colleges across the country—places whose mission is to provide opportunity and upward mobility—many students face the specter of poverty and not having a place to sleep. Roughly 60 percent of community college students, and 48 percent of four-year college students, face housing insecurity (defined as an inability to pay rent or utilities, or the need to move frequently), according to research from the Hope Center at Temple University. The same survey also found 18 percent of community college students, and 14 percent of four-year college students, have faced homelessness. That precariousness is on full display now, as a number of schools have told students to leave campus and finish the semester online due to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Many who can’t get home to their parents, or don’t have parents to go home to, are scrambling to figure out if they can find and afford housing.

“It’s really a fairly large-scale problem, and I always worry that people don’t appreciate how many students we’re talking about,” says Howard Bell, senior vice president of Starfish, a division of the education technology company Hobsons that works with schools to help assist students facing these challenges. “Higher education comes with its challenges, and that’s fine. But we’re dealing with the fact that, systemically, we’re not helping these students at all.”

Bell, along with other school administrators and advocates, identifies many contributing factors in addition to the rising cost of education. When students turn 18, they lose many social supports, like free school lunch, and may then struggle to provide for themselves. Federal educational aid is intended to cover tuition, not housing, food, and transportation, all necessary expenses for full-time students. And then there’s the changing student population. More Americans are attending college, including those with lower incomes and those who are older and looking to switch careers (more than a third of the nation’s population has completed four years of college or more). More than one in five undergraduate students are parents. Community college students, who are often commuters and don’t have the option of on-campus dormitories, are particularly affected by rising housing costs, especially in urban areas. The existing school aid and financing system, geared toward 18-year-old high school graduates with middle-class backgrounds and family support, seems increasingly antiquated and ineffective in light of these shifts.

Dreams for Change, a nonprofit in San Diego, California, operates a parking program that creates a safe place for local students and other homeless people to sleep in their cars at night. CEO Teresa Smith says that it’s become truly challenging to help the changing community college population in particular. “They can’t ever catch a break,” she says. “In the days of old, college kids could get by with ramen and pasta, and shove five people into one apartment. Today, there’s no places to do that. That means a lot of people get pushed out.

“When we started, I thought this was a recession-based issue and that it would get better as the economy recovered,” she says. “I’m seeing the complete opposite.”

The parking lot Dreams for Change operates for homeless San Diegans includes amenities and services meant to make the prospect of crashing in your car overnight a little more bearable. Those who park here have access to bathrooms with running water, food, refrigerators, a grill to cook, a little office shack to do work, and case managers for supportive services. Smith says of the 70 or so vehicles that park here on a busy night, probably five of them are inhabited by students at nearby universities. Nearly three-quarters of people who use the lot have a source of income.

The fact that students need to utilize the lot is indicative of the challenges they, and schools, face getting to graduation while navigating financial hardships. Smith says many of them feel embarrassment, shame, and isolation around their circumstances.

Colleges and legislators are beginning to address some of the financial barriers holding back many college students, creating food banks, allowing safe parking for the homeless on campus, and creating programs, like FAU’s, that target at-risk populations. But the solutions often only address the results of the housing problem, not the roots of the issue.

She points to many social safety net programs that could be altered or changed to help students. Free school breakfast and lunch, as well as SNAP benefits, are harder to access in college, and could be altered to be easier for full-time students to utilize. Increasing minimum wages would go a long way toward helping working students. “The Living Wage campaign isn’t spoken about as a tool to help college completion, but it definitely is one,” she says.

The majority of action on student poverty is focused on providing emergency food, and happening at the state level, though there is some congressional legislation aimed at campus food insecurity. California, for example, passed AB 74, a $19 million fund to create test programs across the state to support housing-insecure students.

“It’s overwhelmingly about food,” she says. “There are a few exceptions, but not as much is being done to address housing. It’s just that much more expensive a problem to solve.”

The Amarillo model

One of those exceptions is Amarillo College. In many ways, the small Texas community college isn’t much different than similar institutions around the country; it struggles with lower budgets and resources, and a more situationally diverse student body. But it also has Dr. Russell Lowery-Hart, who sums up his approach to helping students as “operationalizing love.”

“We know who our student is and what she needs from us,” he says. “We’ve named our typical student Maria, know what her needs and struggles are, and more than anything, Maria needs us to love her to success.”

Lowery-Hart is going the extra mile to help all of Amarillo’s Marias get through school. He spent a winter weekend homeless so he could better relate to the experiences of his students. He’s also pioneered a program to help students facing economic insecurity that, for all its talk of love, is firmly based in analytics, data, and strong return on investment.

“What I heard from students was that what kept them from being successful in the classroom had nothing to do with the classroom,” he says. “The top 10 things impeding their academic progress were life issues. If students are struggling to put food on the table, cover living arrangements, and cover transportation costs, federal aid doesn’t cover what it really costs to go to college.”

With that in mind, the Amarillo model focuses on rapid reaction. Students facing housing insecurity or homelessness can quickly access food pantries and supportive services. Lowery-Hart and his staff also utilize predictive analytics to figure out which students may need help (during our interview, he referenced a dashboard he had on his office computer, which tracks at-risk students, their academic performance, and their use of school services to help determine who needs extra support). In addition, and perhaps most importantly, Lowery-Hart and his staff are ready to provide emergency housing and loans at a moment’s notice. If a student who is a working mother needs a motel for a week, the school foots the bill. If someone needs long-term housing, Amarillo College and city officials have Housing and Urban Development vouchers set aside. Need a loan to fix the car you need to get to class? Or $100 to pay an electric bill that’s overdue? Lowery-Hart is happy to step in.

And he’s found a clear financial incentive behind doing good. The school spends roughly $600,000 a year on personnel and services, and another $100,000 to $150,000 in emergency aid, which has increased retention rates by 12 percent. Completion rates at Amarillo have risen from 25 to 53 percent in just the last five years, and that decrease in dropouts offers a 16-to-1 return on investment, in terms of tuition that ends up getting paid.

“Even if you don’t see this as a social justice issue, see it as an economic one,” he says. “We know clearly that our students are one emergency away from dropping out, and if they ever drop out, the likelihood they come back is in the single digits. They have one shot at changing the trajectory of their lives.”

He’s found that these students often have a different perception of themselves than outsiders might.

“People who work two part-time jobs think they’re struggling, not in poverty,” he says. “They don’t have time to figure out how to access resources. They think the resources are for people who are really struggling, and they don’t understand that they’re working, and need those resources.”

In Los Angeles’s Boyle Heights neighborhood, a program run by the nonprofit Jovenes (Spanish for youth) has a similar focus on catching students before they slip through the cracks of the existing safety net. The organization—which got its start in the 1980s and ’90s helping foster youth from Central and Latin America find housing and emergency shelter—began approaching community colleges in 2016, looking to help some of the teenagers they assisted apply for college. It was “eye-opening” to discover how many community college students needed help, says Eric Hubbard, the organization’s director of development and strategic partnerships.

“We simply weren’t aware of the large number of students experiencing homelessness,” he says. “So we started to look at the problem and figured we should expand our services to provide housing opportunities, tailored to the students, to meet them where they are and help them maintain school as a core focus.”

Jovenes created what it calls college-focused rapid rehousing. Using rental subsidies, it helps students find housing near their college campus (Jovenes has partnerships with East Los Angeles, Cerritos, and Rio Hondo Community Colleges, all of which are in Los Angeles County). The nonprofit pays full or significant portions of the monthly rent, and offers services such as financial planning, academic support, and mental health services. Like the Amarillo model, the Jovenes program is predicated on a holistic view of student support, and believes that housing is just part of a suite of services that can, when combined, keep students from getting sidetracked by financial issues. So far, Jovenes has worked with about 80 students in this program, 67 of whom have graduated or remain enrolled. Hubbard proudly noted that current community college graduation rates in the state are 70 percent, so this program is keeping up with the state average.

“With foster youth in general, half will go to community college and roughly 10 percent will graduate,” says Hubbard. “We see a growing population of young folks doing the right things by investing in their education, but facing the challenges of homelessness that create significant barriers to success.”

How do solutions for students scale up?

While awareness of the issue has increased, along with the number of specialized programs meant to help students at risk of housing insecurity, there’s still a long way to go to provide students everywhere with the tools to succeed. Higher education in this nation has always prided itself on being a stepping stone for success, a sure route to betterment and a good job. But for those facing financial strain, arguably the students who would benefit most from a degree, housing issues can still be a barrier in many places.

“The schools that can try to launch these support programs have a financial cushion,” says Goldrick-Rab. “It’s dangerous for those who don’t have a cushion, especially community colleges. ‘You want me to try what? We’re about to lay off faculty.’ We’re living with the result of massively underfunding these schools.”

But for those who can find a program, they can be a lifeline. Sara at FAU, who will graduate this spring with a degree in political science, says that the Educate Tomorrow program has helped her navigate a stressful situation as an independent adult, without feeling ashamed of her situation.

“It doesn’t make you feel like you’re an outcast or a black sheep,” she says.

It’s also provided a home when she needed it: Last week, during the school’s spring break, she called from her dorm room, where she stays during school recesses and the summer.

“I know how to handle stressful situations and how to deal with adversity with being an adult,” she says.

She knows exactly what she’ll be doing this August, after graduation: Starting a masters program in higher learning, with the goal of eventually starting her own support group for refugee and immigrant students.