In the United States, housing insecurity is a growing concern. Nearly every major city is experiencing a high degree of homelessness spanning many population sectors. College students represent a substantial percentage of those affected. A large-scale survey, the first of its kind, was undertaken by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University to help bring awareness to the basic need insecurities among college students. Featuring input and data from over 500,000 participating college students, the contents of the survey chronicled the difficulties students were facing during the pandemic. A post expanded study began earlier this year (2023) to help support the previously acquired survey data.[i]
To further greater awareness in this space, a recent CITI Program podcast on housing insecurity among college students allowed for a unique discussion featuring trusted professionals. Mary Haskett, PhD, a professor in the Department of Psychology at North Carolina State University (NC State), where she directs the Family Studies lab, and Libby Stephens, the Program Coordinator for HOST. Libby brings over twenty years of non-profit experience to her role leading the program development and management of the HOST Program.
Several thought-provoking pain points relative to housing insecurity were addressed, in addition to lending insight into the root causes. Local and national-level approaches to the problem were introduced, indicating an aim toward providing viable solutions. Some of the discussion highlighted the many layers related to homelessness and how systemically it intersects with other barriers to completing higher education successfully.
Mental health advocates explain that housing insecurity tends to accompany other aspects related to inaccessibility, citing that about a third of today’s college attendees struggle with access to basic needs like healthy food, transportation, and medical care.[ii]
A study reported that 36% of college students are trying to attend college while simultaneously immersed in unstable housing situations, such as living in their cars or couch surfing.[iii]
Approximately 56,000 college students were unhoused or homeless in 2021 as indicated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.[iv]
Exploring the Root Causes
When asked about the reasons for the uptick in housing insecurity and homelessness rates among college students, Libby Stephens, (one of the podcast guests), said the following:
“Coronavirus pandemic led to a loss of work hours and loss of work. Many families also experienced death of an income provider or incurred medical costs which led to more financial instability.”
Following the coronavirus pandemic, a shift in our national economy is still being felt. Uncertainty plagues many pivotal economic industries. The government took initial mitigating adjustments in the form of placing restrictions on eviction actions and making it easier to qualify for food assistance. However, the moratoriums on rent have since been lifted, leaving many, including resource-depleted college students, grappling with housing solutions.
In 2022, a report provided by the Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) indicated that 27% of students conveyed difficulties in paying their rent or mortgages. The rising costs of housing and living essentials serve as main contributors to housing instability. In 2022, food prices increased 13.5 percent, representative of the largest 12-month percentage increase since 1979. (Source: Bureau of Labor and Statistics).
Moreover, college students likely experience difficulties in securing a dense rental market consisting of 44 million Americans with a monthly rent average of 1320 U.S. dollars per month for a two-bedroom apartment. Evidence also shows that rental units are often priced unfavorably high for short term leases and new lease applicants. Unfortunately, this fits the college-student demographic and potentially leaves them without a secure housing plan at the start of each academic year.
Studies indicate that poverty-stricken populations have become part of a systemic trend that is incredibly challenging to break free from. Psychology experts communicate that students from low-income households entering academic environments experience hurdles not common to middle- and upper-income student populations. In many cases, the student may also be a financial contributor to the household and attempting to navigate collegiate responsibilities. On a positive note, Pew Research shows more low-income students are entering into 2–4-year university systems.[v] The concern among student advocates is that this statistic translates to more borrowing activity which often leads to an unfavorable rabbit hole.
Understanding the Impact
Educational experts agree that housing insecurity coincides with other degrees of basic needs insecurity in that it has a tremendous impact on college students. Vulnerable students are placed in a storm of not-so-easily remedied challenges. For example:
- Academic difficulties directly result from poor nutrition, sleep quality, and overall unfavorable circumstances experienced by affected student populations.[vi]
- Depression and other mental health issues are exacerbated by chronic disruption in routine because of situational stressors. Consequently, reports of college students engaging in destructive behaviors and self-harm are escalating.[vii]
- Failing grades and bad attendance are more common in student populations where basic need insecurity is a factor and contributes to delayed or incomplete graduation rates.[viii]
When asked about the reasons for the uptick in housing insecurity and homelessness rates among college students, Libby Stephens, (one of the podcast presenters), says the following:
“Coronavirus pandemic led to a loss of work hours and loss of work. Many families also experienced the death of an income provider or incurred medical costs, which led to even more degrees of increasing financial instability.”
Good solid information proves golden in most situations and a comprehensive housing study performed by Harvard University contributed greatly in this regard, supporting many of the thoughts and insights articulated above. The hope would be that the healthy volume of relevant data provided by the Harvard study can be applied towards any additional efforts to remedy housing insecurity and homelessness.[ix]
Obvious interventions lead toward traditional approaches to assisting low-income college students by arming them with federal financial aid assistance portals like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), and other need-based funding sources like grants, scholarships, and private loans. Advocates in this space are actively partnering with institutions to give vulnerable students housing stability in any way possible. Some state officials are taking steps legislatively to tackle the problem. California put into play state law AB 1393 which applies to state and local university systems and ensures that campus housing is prioritized for students coming in from foster care situations.[x]
Secondary approaches are organizations that partner with educational institutions to provide support via creative avenues. Some of the out-of-box solutions may not prove to be suitable for the long term, but school officials are digging deep to give their vulnerable students a stable wall in which to lean upon when needed.
A California-based college opened up enclosed parking garage. The plan specified a plan with dedicated hours that the students could sleep in their cars and have access to bathrooms and showers, electrical outlets, and internet while partnering with counselors to seek long-term housing.[xi]
“The unfortunate truth is that LBCC has close to 70 students sleeping in their cars each night—quite possibly more,” Long Beach Community College District Interim Superintendent-President Mike Muñoz said in a statement.
The Colorado Taskforce on the Education for Unaccompanied Youth Experiencing Homelessness launched an innovative form of support where they appoint one staff member to every housing insecure student called “Single Points of Contact” (SPOCs) program. This method of support aims to provide strategies to help students offset their financial and housing burdens by partnering with other educational institutions to postpone housing deposits enabling students to pay when financial aid is in place. They also connect students with avenues to support long-term objectives, such as financial literacy training, peer support groups, and food banks.[xii]
What we know for sure is that the focus upon college students experiencing homelessness or insecure housing situations is improving. Strategic partnership efforts spearheaded by Dr. Mary Haskett’s organization demonstrates a willingness to dive in and face the unique set of challenges associated with housing insecurity. Shifts in public perception are changing especially as inflation rates continue to rise. The vantage point of our cities has changed as the plethora of tent encampments encroach in major cities across America. At present, housing insecurity is a growing crisis spanning across many diverse population sectors, most notably our youth.
Taking cues from our podcast presenters, the future will continue to explore solutions for not only the existing homeless crisis, but the root causes that lead to continued hardship. It seems reasonable to expect more uncommon approaches on the part of independent and dependent school officials who are committed to partnering with other leading subject matter experts. Thought-leaders also suggest movement towards more favorable changes in legislation to expand low-cost dedicated housing into rural areas, college-campuses, and major cities where the rents and cost of living far exceed what is viable for most students.
- [i] The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. n.d. “The Hope Center Basic Needs Survey.” Accessed May 23, 2023.
- [ii] Coakley KE, Cargas S, Walsh-Dilley M, Mechler H. Basic Needs Insecurities Are Associated with Anxiety, Depression, and Poor Health Among University Students in the State of New Mexico. J Community Health. 2022. Access May 23, 2023
- [iii] Goldrick-Rab, Sara, Jed Richardson, Joel Schneider, Anthony Hernandez, and Clare Cady. 2018. “Still Hungry and Homeless in College.” Accessed May 23, 2023.
- [iv] U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Office of Policy Development and Research. 2015. “Insights into Housing and Community Development Policy.” Accessed May 23, 2023.
- [v] Pew Research Center. 2019. “A Rising Share of Undergraduates Are From Poor Families.” Accessed May 23, 2023
- [vi] Ahmad NSS, Sulaiman N, Sabri MF. Food Insecurity: Is It a Threat to University Students’ Well-Being and Success? Accessed May 23, 2023
- [vii] Science Direct. Nonsuicidal self-injury in undergraduate students with major depressive disorder: The role of psychosocial factors. Accessed May 23, 2023.
- [viii] Broton, K. M., Mohebali, M., & Lingo, M. D. (2022). Basic Needs Insecurity and Mental Health: Community College Students’ Dual Challenges and Use of Social Support. Community College Review, 50(4), 456–482. Accessed May 23, 2023.
- [ix] The Joint Center for Housing Studies by Harvard University. 2022. “Americas Rental Housing”. Accessed May 23, 2023.
- [x] The California State University. n.d. “Policy, Literature & Communications.” Accessed May 23, 2023.
- [xi] Long Beach City College. 2021. “LBCC Launches Pilot Program for Student Overnight Parking.” Accessed May 23, 2023.
- [xii] Colorado Department of Education. 2022. “Homeless Higher Education – Single Points of Contact (SPOCs).” Accessed May 23, 2023.