Homelessness is a salient policy issue across the country, but its prevalence among college students remains under-discussed. As tuition costs skyrocket, evidence suggests a significant number of students are left struggling to meet their basic needs and experiencing housing instability which can have devastating consequences for their academic performance and future prospects.
In February, BPC released a report on Housing Supply and the Drivers of Homelessness examining the relationship between homelessness and housing supply and identifying commonsense, evidence-based solutions to address homelessness. This blog expands on that research by delving into the available data on housing insecurity and homelessness among college students, identifying factors that contribute to these issues, and proposing recommendations across higher education and housing policy to address the problem.
Affordability Challenges in Higher Education
Over the past two decades, the cost of tuition, fees, room and board (TFRB) has increased by 32% at public four-year institutions, 26% at private non-profits, and 11% at public two-year schools. The cost of TFRB at four-year public colleges and universities has risen about two and half times faster than the median family income, which has grown 13% during that 20-year period.
Many students rely heavily on grants and loans to pay for their college education. However, federal student aid assistance has failed to keep pace with growing costs, putting major strains on students’ budgets. In 2020, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice conducted the #RealCollege Survey of more than 195,000 students. Of those surveyed, 58% reported experiencing basic needs insecurity, defined as experiencing some form of food insecurity, homelessness, or housing insecurity—which encompasses a range of challenges to accessing stable housing. In the 12 months prior to the survey, 14% of respondents reported experiencing homelessness and 48% experienced some form of housing insecurity.
Recent federal and state-level data similarly highlight a noteworthy portion of students grappling with housing instability. The 2020 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study, which is grounded in a nationally representative sample, indicates that approximately 8% of undergraduate students experienced homelessness in the 30 days prior to filling out the survey. A review of nationwide studies by California’s Homeless Coordinating and Financing Council estimates homelessness affects 12% of community college students and 9% of university students over a 12-month period.
Students who are housing insecure are less likely to complete their degree and are at a higher risk for other basic needs insecurities. Many students who fail to complete their degree programs often find themselves burdened with substantial student debt without the increased earnings associated with degree attainment. Those who do not finish their degrees are more likely to face difficulties in repaying loans and default.
By ensuring that students experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity have the resources they need to succeed academically, policymakers can help to mitigate the financial risks associated with student loan defaults and foster long-term economic stability for these individuals.
College Students and the Crisis of Affordable Housing
Most undergraduates in the United States live off-campus, relying on local housing markets for a place to live. Approximately 18% of undergraduates lived in on-campus housing as of 2020, a trend that has largely held steady for decades. As enrollment rates continue to exceed the supply of on-campus housing, students must contend with an increasingly competitive and expensive housing market alongside non-student households.
Students often lack the necessary credentials to secure market-rate rental housing, such as rental histories, cosigners, or the savings to pay a security deposit. Federal housing support for college students is also limited; access to different programs depends on factors such as parental income, the student’s enrollment status, and whether the student is a member of a student-only household.
All-student households are generally not eligible to live in affordable units financed by the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit (LIHTC), the largest federal program for producing affordable rental homes. While there are exceptions for those students who are single parents, receive Title IV Social Security benefits, or are former foster youth, experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity is not enough to qualify for the program.
There is a logic behind these restrictions: federal programs aimed at supporting low-income households seek to avoid subsidizing students whose parents may be capable of paying for their housing. Even without considering parents, it can be difficult for LIHTC units and other housing programs with Area Median Income (AMI)-based eligibility to evaluate student applicants, since they can appear to have very low incomes yet can rely on non-income sources such as loans and grants to pay for housing.
However, grants are categorized as income under the federal Housing Choice Voucher (HCV) program. Currently, grant aid for essential education-related expenses, such as fees, books, supplies, and transportation to school, is included as “income” for the purpose of determining HCV eligibility. While some students are eligible to apply for Housing Choice Vouchers, the grant aid regulation and additional eligibility criteria effectively exclude many who could benefit from the housing support.
Underlying the problem of student homelessness is the issue of data quality. While the federal government and local Continuums of Care (CoC) collect data on homelessness, policymakers at all levels lack useful data on postsecondary student homelessness, as the transitional nature of student living makes it challenging to document their experiences. In part due to this data gap, the federal homelessness prevention and response system also fails to fully address the specific needs of unhoused college students or those at risk of experiencing homelessness.
Housing insecurity and homelessness also show a strong, statistically significant negative relationship with college completion rates, persistence, and credit attainment. While students can largely access shelters and permanent supportive housing where available, there are no federal programs or initiatives that specifically target homelessness among college students.
Similar to the rest of the country, students are impacted by the sheer lack of affordable homes. Though college communities differ greatly, many deal with pressures limiting the construction of additional affordable units. High land costs, limited land availability, and increases in the cost of construction are challenges for schools seeking to provide housing for their students. Lawsuits and complaints by groups that oppose new development and support overly restrictive zoning—often known as NIMBYs (an acronym meaning Not In My Backyard)—can create additional hurdles to achieving housing affordability for students.
The long-term stakes of this housing dilemma are high—especially for low-income students. Research from the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) notes that the lack of safe, convenient, and affordable housing can induce students to enroll part-time, live further from campus, work longer hours at jobs, and struggle to cover other necessities.
By implementing timely policy reforms at both the federal and local levels, policymakers can help unlock needed support for students struggling to access stable housing, as well as strengthen their ability to track and address student housing needs in the future.
- Allow emergency aid from the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (FSEOG) to be used to help students stay in school during critical periods. The FSEOG is a federal grant, administered by the Department of Education, used to provide extra financial assistance to students with demonstrated exceptional financial need. Evidence suggests emergency micro-grants are efficient temporary measures in cases where students experience housing instability and can contribute to the increased rate of college graduation. BPC has previously recommended allowing institutions to use a portion of their funds for micro-grant programs and recommends changes to the FSEOG allocation formula to increase support for low-income students. Rather than distributing FSEOG funds to institutions based on previous award amounts and cost of attendance, as under the current formula, BPC’s proposal prioritizes institutions that effectively serve large numbers of low-income students.
- Use the Moving to Work (MTW) demonstration to target Housing Choice Vouchers for community college students. Public housing authorities (PHAs) like the Tacoma PHA in Washington have used the flexibility permitted under MTW to prioritize federal HCV funding for community college students experiencing housing insecurity. Other MTW PHAs in jurisdictions with large low-income student communities could consider implementing similar pilot programs. BPC’s J. Ronald Terwilliger Center for Housing Policy has recommended expanding HUD’s MTW demonstration to a full program to allow more widespread use of innovations like this one.
- Support reforms to allow students to live in Housing Credit-financed units under certain conditions. The bipartisan Affordable Housing Credit Improvement Act includes provisions to ensure that formerly homeless youth and residents of Housing Credit properties seeking to further their education are not prevented from living in tax-credit subsidized units. While there would still be restrictions on student eligibility under the program, these proposed reforms acknowledge the need for greater flexibility to meet the needs of people experiencing housing insecurity who want to further their education.
- Add questions about postsecondary enrollment status to the American Housing Survey. Originally recommended by HUD’s Office of Policy Development and Research, this reform would help ensure data visibility to properly track housing insecurity and homelessness among the college student population using the country’s most important instrument for gathering housing data.
- Collaborate with universities and community colleges to achieve housing and zoning reforms. Most higher education institutions have a vested interest in ensuring the affordability of their nearby housing markets, since most of their students will require off-campus housing. State and local jurisdictions seeking competitive grants such as HUD’s new PRO Housing grants can work with colleges and universities to conceptualize inclusionary zoning and land use reforms that will ultimately increase the supply of affordable housing.
It is crucial for policymakers to understand the multifaceted nature of homelessness to stand a chance of implementing effective policy. College students experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity can benefit from many interventions designed at addressing the overall problem of homelessness, but the affordability challenges they face merit additional consideration and targeted interventions to ensure that they can fully unlock the potential of a higher education.
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