Four young men in front of a house.
In this August 9, 2016 photo, James Edwards, right, poses for a photo with, from left, fellow residents Dujour Rice, Brandon David and Tyren Jones outside the Plymouth Crossroads youth homeless residence in Lancaster, N.Y., as Edwards prepared to leave for college. Carolyn Thompson/AP

More low-income students, some homeless, now enroll in college than middle-income ones. New legislation in California and Washington state aims to help them.

Right now, high school seniors across the United States are weighing their acceptances to college and making decisions about the next few years of their lives. For many, the financial aid and support opportunities at an institution will dictate their choice.

Living costs and tuition fees are on the rise at colleges and universities. In the past decade, average tuition and fee prices at public four-year colleges increased by $2,670. Yet these days higher education institutions are filled with a financially diverse student body. Although the majority still hails from the upper class, more low-income students now enroll in college than their middle-income peers, while an increasing number of students find their way to college after experiencing poverty and even homelessness.

Politicians are making efforts to support these students: In 2019, lawmakers in Washington state and California have introduced bills to address the particular challenges for these students, and in February, the Massachusetts governor’s office announced a pilot program to house and feed homeless college students.

Charles Adkins, now 21, is a student in Washington state who could have benefitted from these initiatives. He became homeless the day after his freshman year of high school. His father had returned to their home in Dupont, Washington, from a tour in Afghanistan with PTSD. After a series of bad family arguments—the final one ending with his father being taken away in handcuffs—Adkins made the difficult decision to move out.

Although he initially stayed with friends or on the streets, after a few months representatives from a pair of local non-profits helped him access stable housing. He not only graduated from high school, but also received a full scholarship to attend The Evergreen State College in Olympia,Washington.

It was a tremendous achievement. But the reality was stepping onto that college campus the first day of freshman year did not make all of his problems magically disappear. While his financial aid covered his schooling and room and board, he found few supports available when it came to additional expenses, such as affording the $700 to stay on campus during winter break.

“I was able to draw from support from resources available for students who are family members of veterans as well as Native American students and the students experiencing homelessness or foster care,” said Adkins, and set to graduate in June. “If I was just one of those identities I probably would not have been as successful when it comes to dealing with being homeless in college.”

Although Adkins was able to cobble together various forms of assistance, resources and supports available to students like him are extremely limited.

Recognizing this, in February, Washington State Senator Emily Randall introduced bill SB5800 that would launch a pilot program in which six colleges (two community and technical colleges on each side of the state and one four-year college on each side of the state) would provide students with everything from laundry and shower facilities and food banks to short-term housing or housing assistance and case management services.

“We are facing a homelessness crisis and housing crisis in our state and folks who find their way into college who work hard and get in should be able to be successful,” said Randall. “This is about connecting students with all of the supports that they need.”

The proposal, which passed through the full State Senate in March and is currently being considered by the House, would create and fund a coordinator position. The individual would be responsible for helping colleges navigate this program and connect students with these services. The bill is also expected to help address the lack of data on homeless college students in Washington. It will require participating colleges provide a joint report at the end of the pilot program, detailing such things as the number of students attending college who were homeless in high school and the number of students assisted by the pilot program.

***

Last year, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, a nonprofit research center, released a report detailing a survey of 43,000 students at dozens of two-year community colleges and four-year colleges and universities in 20 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. Of university students, 36 percent said they had experienced some form of housing insecurity and 9 percent reported being homeless in the past year. Among community college students, 46 percent reported housing insecurity and 12 percent reported homelessness.

At a more local level, a report released last month by the center found that a little over half of the 22,000 students surveyed at City University of New York undergraduate campuses said they were housing insecure in the previous year, and 14 percent reported being homeless in the previous year.

In California’s community colleges, those numbers are even more startling. Sixty percent of the 40,000 students surveyed at dozens of California community colleges reported being housing insecure and 19 percent reported being homeless in the previous year.

This March, California State Assemblyman Marc Berman introduced a bill that would allow students to sleep overnight in their vehicles in school parking lots and structures. The bill passed the State Assembly’s higher education committee on April 2.

Jovenes, a nonprofit organization for homeless youth launched in 2016 in California, goes a step further. It provides housing for local homeless or near-homeless community college students in Los Angeles. The organization’s College Success Initiative currently provides partial or full rental subsidies for 55 community college students in East and Southeast LA, according to Eric Hubbard, Jovenes’ director of development.

Officials at one of three community colleges (East Los Angeles College, Rio Hondo College in Whittier, and Cerritos College in Norwalk) typically refer students to the program, and then Jovenes representatives help them find an apartment. But with dozens of students on its waiting list, the program is finding it impossible to keep up with the need. Hubbard said these numbers emphasize the need for further support for these students.

“All of these investments about getting underprivileged youth and at-risk youth into school has to also be accompanied by a focus on helping them get through college,” he said. “Housing is probably one of the hardest things to solve, but without it students aren’t going to succeed.”

Vanessa Coca, senior research associate at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, said she has started to see an increase in the number of these types of smaller, local programs for homeless college students. She said this is likely due to more data on this issue being available. But there is still plenty more work to be done, including at the state level.

Following the 2018 release of a state-level study of food and housing insecurity, and homelessness among college students in Massachusetts, in February the governor announced a small pilot program to address their needs. As part of a larger-scale pilot program for homeless youth, 20 community college students will receive free housing at local four-year colleges. For an 18-month period ending in fiscal year 2020, campuses will be reimbursed by the state for the cost of their dorm bed occupancy, including during school breaks, and meals and snacks will be provided to the students.

At the national level, a bipartisan team of lawmakers recently reintroduced a bill that would call on higher education institutions to work with the federal government to boost resources for homeless college students and foster youth, including helping them access housing during school breaks. The proposal was initially introduced in 2017, but never enacted.

It is clear that there is a need for these types of higher education supports. Students not only suffer when they don’t have housing, they are also less likely to do well when it comes to their academics.

But perhaps these changes need to go beyond just providing housing. Coca said there’s a basic need for more empathy for low-income college students and the many truly difficult challenges they face. Yes, some students could very well get through school by simply cutting back on non-essentials and eating cheaper food. But there are others who this won’t be enough for, who will be forced to sleep on their friend’s floors or even the streets, she explained.

“I think students have much harder experiences than we give them credit for,” Coca said. “This is not just about buying ramen, this about deciding whether or not to purchase a bus card or train card so you can actually go to your colleges or deciding on buying food.”

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