What Can States Do to Better Support College Students Experiencing Homelessness?

As the cost of higher education increases, a startling number of students in postsecondary institutions experience homelessness. A survey (PDF) of 86,000 college students found 14 percent of students at four-year universities and 18 percent of students at community colleges experienced homelessness or did not have a stable place to live at some point during college.

For youth experiencing homelessness, postsecondary education can improve future stability (PDF), yet formal education is difficult to attain while experiencing homelessness and housing insecurity.

A study in California (PDF) found that even though the majority desired a career that required education beyond high school, only 16 percent believed they would be able to attend or graduate college in the next five years. When students do successfully enroll in college, the stress of housing instability can hurt (PDF) their academic achievement.

Colleges and universities have implemented programming to support students with housing challenges. Such programs may directly address housing needs or focus on related issues of material hardship and stress or trauma, including emergency shelters availability, access to food pantries, and psychological counseling. Although many colleges have started outreach and assistance efforts to support students with housing challenges, colleges with high rates of student homelessness may lack the capacity to serve their students sufficiently and address these challenges on their own.

For public higher education institutions, state governments can step in to assist with students’ housing needs and enable equitable access. State assistance has precedents in policies that open path ways to postsecondary education and relieve financial barriers to access (for example, free tuition for community colleges and increased state-sponsored scholarships). Making college completion equitably available will require additional supports for students experiencing housing and other basic needs insecurities.

As colleges work to connect students with supports, states have been stepping in to reinforce these efforts.  California, Louisiana, Nevada, Tennessee, and Washington are among the states that have passed legislation to expand and fund promising practices in serving students experiencing homelessness in public universities statewide. 

Understanding the need: Identifying students experiencing homelessness

Students with unstable housing may not consider themselves homeless or may want not want to discuss their housing needs, so understanding the prevalence of homelessness on campus is difficult (PDF) to do. One survey found that even though 14 percent of students at four-year institutions experience conditions considered signs of homelessness, only 2 percent self-identified as homeless.

To better comprehend the breadth of the issue and the programs needed and to help students access available resources, colleges and states can improve their identification efforts. The Washington State government instituted a requirement for higher education institutions to ask about unaccompanied homelessness in their applications and registration materials. The results would help identify applicants eligible for financial and other support services.

Connecting to services: Homeless liaisons

The range of services colleges have implemented to address student housing insecurity issues, though essential, may be piecemeal or disconnected, making them difficult for students to navigate while managing the stress of having no place to call home.

States such as California, Louisiana (PDF), and Tennessee have reacted by passing legislation requiring their public postsecondary institutions to have designated homeless liaisons to help connect students to resources on and off campus and guide them throughout the process of securing stable housing. Under the McKinney-Vento Act (PDF), local and state education agencies are required to connect P–12 students experiencing homelessness to supports and liaisons. However, this federal provision does not exist at the postsecondary level. Colleges and states governments can step in to extend these supports to postsecondary students in need.

State governments can also require colleges to have plans for students experiencing homelessness. California designated funding for its public postsecondary institutions to partner with organizations serving people experiencing homelessness to implement rapid rehousing programs and wraparound services for homeless college students. Additionally, Nevada legislation requires a Liaison for Post-Secondary Education for Homeless Pupils to establish a plan for housing students experiencing homelessness when campus housing is unavailable.

Access to shelter: Priority housing for homeless students

Stable housing is critical for people’s well-being and persistence in higher education. The residence options colleges offer vary among institutions.  Although some schools have live-in guarantees, others may provide no housing options at all. On-campus housing can be expensive or insufficient to meet demand. In most cases, students receive minimal aid in securing affordable off-campus housing. And when campuses close for academic breaks, students who may not have a home to return to are left without access to dorms and dining halls.

State laws in California and Tennessee work to assist students experiencing homelessness by requiring that colleges prioritize them for housing and keep residence halls open over the breaks. This legislation requires state universities and community colleges to create a plan for these students to have year-round access to housing.

For an increasing share of students, homelessness and housing insecurity undermines postsecondary success. Postsecondary institutions have increasingly taken on the challenge of addressing basic-needs insecurity among college students, and legislation from several states has begun to expand equitable access to postsecondary education by establishing supports and resources for students experiencing homelessness. This dedicated effort from institutions and states across the country is necessary to ensure students who most need housing supports can access them.

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