Many people associate college with fond memories — new friendships, freedom and their first steps into adulthood. Some graduates even longingly look back at it as “the best four years” of their lives.
But, for others, that certainly doesn’t hold true.
Thirty-six percent of college students experience some kind of homelessness, and 9 percent live completely without a home, according to a Wisconsin HOPE Lab report.
In class and walking through campus, these students look like any other college students, but the hardships they face outweigh those of their peers.
And unfortunately, colleges and universities aren’t doing enough to help their students find a room to sleep in, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a Temple University professor and founding director of The Hope Center.
Altogether, the issue has been overlooked — on campuses and in the general public.
Currently, rising tuition, student loan debt and even student mental health take up the higher education headlines. While all of those concerns are very deserving of the attention they get, student homelessness seems to be forgotten.
But breaking silence is often the first step to solving widespread issues. Once the stigma surrounding homelessness begins to fade — as it has with mental health — perhaps the issue will gain more ground, and colleges and universities will be pressured into action.
Why do so many students struggle with homelessness?
Students aren’t homeless by choice. Typically, they come from low-income families who can’t afford to help them pay for school.
And while some would suggest that it is financially irresponsible for a person to enroll in college if they can’t afford it, most of these students know the risk they are taking. They perceive a college degree as a must-have ticket out of the lower-income bracket — as an opportunity for financial freedom
But the mounting costs of an education can be overwhelming.
While enrolled in college, students have to pay for much more than tuition and books. They also have to pay for items that are necessary for a stable, healthy life.
And the financial aid and scholarships students receive don’t even begin to cover all of their expenses.
Take Jasmine Bigham, a senior at Humboldt State University, for example.
Bigham, who is on a prestigious Ford Family Foundation scholarship, recently told CBS that she lives in her van and showers in a women’s locker room on campus.
She struggles now, so she can succeed later.
“I’m gonna go become something,” she told CBS. “And I’m gonna succeed in it and keep trying, you know? If things are hard, you just gotta keep trying.”
Bigham’s position is shared by thousands of other college students who currently face homelessness and, presumably, by many who came before her.
However, because no one tracked the numbers in the past, there is no way to know if student homelessness has increased or decreased recently, Goldrick-Rab said.
“But the conditions are not good,” she continued.
Tuition prices are higher, the costs of housing is up, families of today’s students aren’t all wealthy, the labor market is full of low-wage jobs and it is harder to get government or college assistance, she pointed out.
“These things are a radical shift from even 20 years ago,” she said.
What some universities and colleges are doing to help
Although, altogether, universities and colleges aren’t doing enough to address their student homelessness problems, there are a couple that have stepped up and deserve credit for doing so.
Since 2014, West Chester University in Philadelphia has been offering homeless students access to housing, food and supplies year-round through its Promise Program.
Kennesaw State University in Georgia offers temporary housing to any student in need through its Campus Awareness, Resource & Empowerment (CARE) Center. Students in desperate need are permitted to live in a designated campus apartment for up to 14 days while the CARE center works to locate and secure long-term housing for them.
CARE also offers every student on campus access to a large food pantry where they can shop for all of their essentials once every 30 days, “no questions asked.”
What can students do?
Students should feel a responsibility to look out for their peers and help every student on campus find a bed to sleep in.
The authors of the HOPE report suggest students can start to help by supporting each other, educating others, advocating for solutions and creating their own programs.
One such program is the Bruin Shelter, which is entirely run by UCLA students “who aim to provide a safe and supportive space” for their homeless peers.
The center opens at 8 p.m., and provides students with toiletries, dinner and a bagged breakfast in the morning before it closes at 7 a.m
While the Bruin Shelter, along with the programs at West Chester and Kennesaw State, are all important first steps to minimizing student homelessness, they aren’t long-term solutions.
“Shelters aren’t what we need,” said Goldrick-Rab.
“Colleges need to create more affordable housing rather than opt for expensive housing, partner with local developers and landlords, bridge connections to homelessness services and do everything they can to offer emergency aid,” she continued.
This will be possible only by increasing public awareness of the student homelessness crisis.
News & Content Manager
Jackson Schroeder is a recent graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in Journalism from the E.W. Scripps School. He is originally from Savannah, Georgia. Jackson has covered a wide range of topics, including sustainability, technology, sports, culture, travel, and music. He plays bass and guitar, and enjoys playing and listening to live music in his free time.