When we think about struggling college students, surviving on ramen noodles cooked in a microwave may come to mind. Even though I didn’t like my roommate in college, we pulled our resources together and managed to live off-campus in a two-bedroom apartment. We had the basics and then some. We were able to put our attention towards being students.
A college education has always been viewed as the ideal path to success. We rarely question the necessity of obtaining a college degree, even now with entrepreneurship and social media marketing being top alternatives. The harsh reality is that there is $1.5 trillion dollars of tuition debt, and college costs keep rising. The pandemic has also increased rates of both food and housing insecurity among college students. What does this mean? Students are going hungry and homeless just to learn.
The 2021 #RealCollege study found that “nearly 3 in 5 college students faced some form of basic needs insecurity in 2020.”
When we think of the struggles that people experience for food and shelter, the solution is often to call on the government for help. Truth is, the government has shown they are not sympathetic to college students, since they are the ones paying for the experience of being there. The average cost for a full year of tuition at a public university (in state) is $25,290, and $50,900 for a private university. We can’t help but call this a crisis.
How do we reconcile the value of a college education with students living in their cars?
Homelessness can take several forms. Some students consider themselves homeless if they stay with friends. Others live in shelters, cars, abandoned buildings, or outdoor areas.
In California, where homelessness is an epidemic, Long Beach City College provides overnight parking for students living in their cars. From 10 p.m. until 7 a.m., up to 15 students are able to pull into a campus parking garage — monitored by security guards — to access Wi-Fi, electricity, and restrooms and, from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m., to have access to campus showers. All students in the program have access to services for basic needs.
What about the students who don’t have a vehicle?
In Massachusetts, community colleges are taking a different approach to student homelessness. Students are able to get campus housing at nearby Bridgewater State, Framingham State, Worcester State, and UMass Lowell. The initiative covers their meals and allows them to stay in student housing during school breaks, which can often be a lifesaver. Students are also teamed with resources that can assist with laptops.
Depending on the needs of their students, as well as the budget, schools will provide different levels of assistance.
The high cost of college is just one reason for the homeless problem. COVID-19 also presented a whole set of challenges. Most students need to work in order to provide for themselves and pay tuition. This is worsened by rising costs of living, inconsistent wages, and school debt. Students are taking on a significant amount of debt to achieve their degrees.
Hunger and homelessness can overlap, but not always. There were times when I was hungry in college, but I still had a roof over my head. Oftentimes, I went to a friend’s place or was able to scrounge a few dollars for a value meal. There are students who don’t have that luxury.
The pandemic brought more problems on top of what was already overwhelming. When campuses closed in March 2020, college students no longer could rely on their campuses for food, Wi-Fi, and housing. Returning to campus, they realized these necessities were harder to come by. On some campuses, housing was just not available anymore.
In the case of Howard University, dozens of students pitched tents and slept outdoors in protest of “unlivable” conditions. Mold, insect and rodent infestations, and flooding is what the students faced, putting their health at risk. Why did it take over two weeks for the administration to do something? Why did these problems exist in the first place?
Despite what you may think, homeless students are not denied financial assistance or federal aid. Naturally, some students are too embarrassed to ask for help or even let their campuses know they are homeless. Colleges and universities can improve this by asking about homelessness right on the application, as well as registration materials. Also, there are advisors on-campus to help students make connections to resources.
As a college instructor, I have had students reach out to me sharing that they are homeless. One, in particular, is a military veteran, living in his van, and using his cell phone for Wi-Fi in order to submit work and participate in online discussions. There are times that I want to tell him to just focus on getting in a better situation and then enroll back in school when things are better. But who am I to suggest that anyone deny themselves the opportunity and right to attend college, even if they are homeless?
So, I do my part and encourage him to do his. We have good communication, and he lets me know if assignments will be late due to a poor internet connection. I listen. I encourage. I guide him towards resources that I know can help. I respect him because he is my student.
The typical image of a college student has changed. At the very least, students should have a support system. Society has to reimagine their view of student life and so do the institutions that enroll them. Students will have more opportunity and actually be able to do the one thing that matters most — just be a student.
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Archuleta is an author, poet, blogger, and host of the FearlessINK podcast. Archuleta's work centers Black women, mental health and wellness, and inspiring people to live their fullest potential.