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Three in five college students experience housing insecurity. While stress is a normal part of college for most students, the inability to meet basic needs like having a safe place to sleep creates additional hardship and prolonged stress. In response, how can higher education professionals support housing-insecure and homeless college students?
There’s a statistically significant relationship between housing-insecure students and college completion rates, persistence, and credit attainment. Research associates basic needs insecurity with poor physical health, symptoms of depression, and higher perceived stress. Studies also show these issues are more common among college students than previously thought.
Statistics on college students facing housing insecurity
The 2021 #RealCollege Survey, led by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University, was completed by more than 195,000 students at 202 colleges and universities in 42 states. It found 52% of respondents at two-year institutions were housing insecure compared to 43% at four-year institutions. The most common challenges facing respondents across the college sector were not being able to pay the full amount of their rent, mortgage, or utility bills.
Homelessness among college students
For the first time in the #RealCollege Survey’s history, the number of students experiencing homelessness at two-year colleges and four-year colleges was the same — 14%. Perhaps the coronavirus pandemic had a larger impact on housing security among full-time four-year students.
Structural racism also plays a role in disparities among housing-insecure and homeless students. Rates of housing and food insecurity in 2020 were 70% for Black students and 75% for Indigenous students compared to 54% for White students. COVID-19 — which disproportionately affects people of color — exacerbates students’ risk for homelessness as well. And given that college enrollment among Black and Native American students fell in 2020, these rates may be higher.
To address this issue, colleges and universities must understand that homelessness takes different forms for different students. Some students consider themselves homeless if they couch surf or stay with friends, while others are in shelters, automobiles, abandoned buildings, or outdoors. The common bond between all housing-insecure students is not knowing where they’ll sleep that night — and the associated mental, physical, and academic impacts. The graph below breaks down the various experiences.
The impact of housing insecurity
Adequate and affordable housing, food, transportation, and childcare are essential conditions for earning a college degree. Studies demonstrate that students facing housing insecurity have lower GPAs, poorer health, and higher rates of depression and anxiety than those who do not face these issues. Students who succeed academically but ultimately drop out at community colleges cite living expenses as a reason for leaving college.
Alternatively, evidence suggests that college students who have access to public benefits and campus supports are more likely to graduate. Research from an evaluation of Compton College in California suggests that students who receive emergency aid are twice as likely as non-recipients to earn a college credential. And, in a study conducted at one public university in California, enrolling in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) was associated with a significant boost in retention rates among students experiencing basic needs insecurity.
How colleges and universities can support students experiencing housing insecurity
During these days of budget cuts and rising housing insecurity, colleges and universities need creative solutions and strategic partnerships to support students’ basic needs. Unfortunately, 33% of housing-insecure college students say they didn’t know about assistance from their institution, and another 19% said they didn’t know how to apply. Consequently, higher education leaders must do more to raise awareness of available resources and connect students with financial assistance available from federal programs, local organizations, and campus programs.
Higher education leaders can take these six considerations into account when developing a strategy for supporting housing-insecure students:
1. Create a single point of contact
Designating a school official who can act as a liaison for housing insecure or homeless students will help identify at-risk students, market available resources, and expedite the process for creating a plan of action.
2. Identify at-risk students earlier
Most financial aid applications start with the assumption that traditional college freshmen enter as dependents. So, those who need to register as independent must follow a few extra steps. It isn’t as easy for a homeless learner, a foster youth living in foster care, or a degree seeker in another special circumstance to fill out the application as it is for those with permanent homes. So, while the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) asks about homelessness, that’s not enough. Colleges and universities should improve identification and outreach efforts by asking about unaccompanied homelessness in application and registration materials outside of the FAFSA and provide continued outreach throughout a student’s academic career. Since circumstances can change at any time, outreach cannot stop at the time of admission.
3. Make the most of housing downtime
Reserve lower-cost, on-campus housing for higher-need students. Colleges can also create plans to fill housing gaps during breaks and emergencies so students facing housing insecurity have year-round access to student housing.
4. Build alliances with local agencies
At Tacoma Community College in Washington, administrators partnered with the Tacoma Housing Authority to provide housing to dozens of students. Initial student tracking found 60% of the students in the program graduated, compared with 16% of an equally challenged comparison group. Other colleges have coordinated with housing authorities to create similar housing and academic advocacy initiatives, such as a program overseen by Jovenes, Inc., a Los Angeles-based housing provider for homeless youth. They joined Los Angeles County to offer housing assistance and vouchers for students at three East Los Angeles community colleges by providing rental subsidies and temporary rooms in the homes of hosts who live near the campuses.
5. Create awareness of federal aid
Many postsecondary institutions received CARES Act Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds. Institutions can allocate these funds to support students’ basic needs, but students in need may not be aware of their eligibility. Colleges can work with students and student groups, including students of color who face structural racism and discrimination, to get the word out.
6. Do the research
Student Training and Education in Public Service (STEPS) offers insights into the college homelessness issue as well as providing helpful resources, scholarship information, and tips for college students experiencing homelessness and home insecurity. Explore this content and consider how to expand access to the various resources available to your campus community.
It’s encouraging to see colleges and universities develop programs to alleviate housing insecurity — but the issue continues to persist.
Telehealth bridges the gap with basic needs support
“Students’ ability to remain healthy, successful, and enrolled in school is directly linked to their ability to obtain access to basic needs,” said Laura Kennemer, Patient Care Advisor at TimelyMD. “Our goal at TimelyMD is to empower students to thrive by helping them overcome the barriers they face in school and in life.”
A new service from TimelyMD that is grounded in community college student research will be available this fall and is designed to connect students with free or reduced-cost programs that provide support services. It was created to empower student populations to overcome barriers they face in school and life by connecting them with programs that provide housing, food pantries, healthcare, transit support, childcare, legal services, assistance for bills, and more. This new support service addresses the barriers caused by financial difficulties and connects students with free or reduced-cost programs based on need and location.
The health of your college campus has a direct impact on student success. When college students’ basic needs are met, they are empowered to take control of their education and academic success. To learn more about how to support students, customize a health and well-being solution for your students, and integrate it with your campus healthcare resources, contact TimelyMD.