When Homeless Youth Attend College, Where Do They Stay?

September is back-to-school month, so it’s a perfect time to talk about the difficulties facing one group of people who we might not always think about as experiencing homelessness: college students.

Everyone knows how important getting some kind of post-secondary education can be to lifting people out of poverty, but people with low-incomes, including homeless youth, face particular barriers to completing college. And failing to complete college can burden low-income students further by increasing their debt without increasing their income.

In 2013, more than 56,000 students identified as homeless on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). And while many of the issues that contribute to making college completion difficult for other low-income and first-generation students are the same for homeless students, their homeless status creates an additional barrier.

College students have two housing options: on campus or off campus. Full-time homeless students usually only have the one: on campus. This could be a good thing, though, because there is evidence that living on campus leads to greater academic success.

However, as a report by the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s Office of Policy Development and Research indicates, the cost of room and board (like tuition) has steadily increased in the last 20 years. In fact, room and board have become at least as expensive as tuition for today’s college students.

(Aside from the barrier of sheer expense, homeless students who live on campuses that close dormitories during breaks also have the particular barrier of having nowhere to go during those times.)

For some homeless students, on campus housing may not be an option (most dorms don’t allow families with children, for example), but homeless students can also face barriers off campus. For instance, students who have poor rental or credit histories (or no rental or credit histories, as is often the case with homeless youth) can find it hard to obtain housing.

But homeless youth who rely on financial aid to rent housing off campus must also face the issue of how financial aid is disbursed. Federal aid is distributed no earlier than 10 days before classes begin. (Or 30 days after classes begin for first-year, first-time borrowers of Direct Loans.) That timeline often means they can’t use financial aid to obtain stable housing until well into the semester.

Fortunately, some colleges and universities are already stepping up to reduce barriers for their students experiencing homelessness. For example, Florida State University’s Center for Academic Retention and Enhancement provides other housing options for students who live on campus but have nowhere else to go over breaks.

The university also runs a campus food pantry for and provides transportation to the grocery store for its students. You can learn more about FSU’s program and the helpful approaches other universities are taking to help their homeless students in this issue brief from the National Center for Homeless Education.

Another innovative model that can be of great help to college students experiencing homelessness is Single Stop USA, which operates in community colleges to help connect low-income students to the resources they need, including housing, to not only stay in school but to excel.

Is your organization connected to potential higher education resources for people experiencing homelessness in your community? How are colleges, universities, and trade schools part of your community’s systemic response to ending homelessness? Share your back-to-school insights with me at mmitchell@naeh.org.