No Room, No Board

Thousands of U.S. college students are homeless or housing insecure. How can schools and communities support them?

Sleeping Rough in College

Five Figures to Consider

57,641 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) applicants identified as unaccompanied homeless youth in 2016
1/3 of all university students were housing insecure at some point during 2017
300% average increase for in-state tuition and fees at public four-year colleges between 1988 and 2018
5% decrease in hourly wages for low-wage workers (in inflation-adjusted dollars) from 1979 to 2013
95% of the jobs created since 2010 have gone to college-educated workers

Jessica McCormick was a homeless college student. She escaped an abusive home and spent her last two years of high school living in a youth shelter. With the help of scholarships, grants, loans and part-time jobs she enrolled at Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. But her needs exceeded those of most students. She had nowhere to live during school breaks and worked four jobs to stay above water. Vanessa Mirasola has a similar story. On her own since high school with no “parental monetary pipeline” student loans enabled her to enroll at Ramapo College in New Jersey. Both women struggled to cover living expenses and lacked housing during school breaks. Jessica spent one Christmas break sleeping outside in the Michigan cold. Vanessa was luckier; when she didn’t have housing, she slept in her car.

Unusual? Not really. Between 2008 and 2014 the number of homeless public school students increased by 90% from 680,000 to 1.3 million.  A portion of those are college students. Colleges are not required to keep track of their homeless population, but 150,612 students answered “yes” to the initial homelessness filtering question on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form in 2016. Of those, 57,641 identified as unaccompanied homeless youth. This number excludes, among other things, those who lack the necessary paperwork such as a birth certificate or a tax return to verify they are independently homeless. It also doesn’t count those who deal with intermittent housing insecurity by camping, couch-surfing, vehicle-sleeping or staying all night in the campus library without ever admitting their circumstances to a university official.  

According to a recent study from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab at least one-third of all university students were housing insecure at some point during 2017. Meanwhile, 12% of community college students and 9% of university students are outright homeless. There are several possible reasons the problem is so widespread. For one, average tuition has tripled since 1988 while hourly wages for low-wage workers (in inflation-adjusted dollars) actually fell 5%. Even working double-shifts, it is hard to pay for college working at Starbucks. What about aid money for low-income students? It isn’t what it used to be. The Pell Grant once covered 80% of a student’s total costs (including living expenses), but today it barely covers one-third. That means low-or-no-income students still have to come up with an average $11,820 for non-tuition expenses like books, food and housing. For those students at commuter schools without dorms, transportation and utility costs also need to be considered. The average student loan debt for 2017 college graduates was $39,400. That debt is a heavy burden for homeless youth especially considering that just 49% of Pell Grant recipients earn a bachelor’s degree within six years.  

Let’s say you are a “lucky” student whose total financial aid package includes dorm costs, what happens when your school closes for breaks? Do you live rough like Jessica? Or can you find someone who can take you in? If so, for how long? The chronic stress of figuring out how to cover basic needs and succeed in school while not wanting to seem different from peers takes a toll on the health and academic performance of homeless students. The Wisconsin Hope Lab found that while homeless college students devote as much time to the classroom and studying as their non-homeless peers, they sleep less, eat less and work more. At one point, to make the most of her student loans, Jessica McCormick was taking 18 credits and working four jobs. The result was a letter from the dean directing her to improve her grades by reducing her workload and seeking help from the school’s Student Support Services, a Department of Education-funded program for low-income, first generation and disabled students. With that support, which included counseling, tutoring and housing support, McCormick raised her GPA to 3.7. Constant worry could be one reason unaccompanied homeless youth have rates of mental disorders at least twice those of housed youth. Among even the general student population, visits to college mental health clinics are rising. (See our report Mental Health in Schools.) About one-third of students arrive on campus having dealt with a mental health episode, 61% self-report having experienced overwhelming anxiety and 20% of students report episodes of depression while at school.  

Given the extent of challenges facing homeless students, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab recommends a centralized approach to support. That means a single point of contact — one person or one office where students can go to discuss all of their needs — food, housing, mental health and academic support. Additionally, schools should advertise program services to all students not just those who come forward and identify themselves as homeless. A lack of awareness about where to go and whom to ask for help is a barrier to usage.

Many community college campuses have partnered with Single Stop, a national nonprofit technology platform. The Single Stop app screens and connects students to public benefits while supporting the staff in case management to ensure students remain enrolled in school. A study by the RAND Corporation found that Single Stop users were 6%-11% more likely to stay in school than non-users. Another innovative approach was developed at Tacoma Community College. Together with the Tacoma Housing Authority the school started the College Housing Assistance Program, which provides full-time students who are homeless or at risk of homelessness with Section 8 housing choice vouchers to use at qualifying units of their choice. The program, which began in 2014, also offers support workshops and comprehensive academic and career counseling. Students must maintain a minimum 2.0 GPA, enroll in at least 12 academic credits, make adequate progress toward a degree and meet relevant housing authority requirements. The vouchers last up to three years or until the student graduates. Of those in the program, 60% have graduated or remained enrolled, compared to 16% of homeless or near-homeless students not in the program.

Obtaining a college education is more important than ever. Since 2010 95% of all new jobs have gone to college-educated workers, and by 2020 65% of all jobs will require education beyond high school. Helping students navigate the issues surrounding housing insecurity is central to keeping them in school. According to The Harvard Business Review, employers are increasingly looking to hire employees who have demonstrated resilience in the face of setbacks. Colleges, communities, governments and employers have much to gain from supporting these irrepressible students. Making it to college in spite of homelessness is a feat of resilience in itself.



American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association,, Economic Policy Institute, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, National Center for Homeless Education, Neighborhood Coalition for Shelter, Scholars Strategy Network, Schoolhouse Connection, Single Stop, Student Loan Hero, Tacoma College Housing Assistance Program,  Tacoma Community College, The Harvard Business Review, Third Way, U.S. Department of Education, Wisconsin HOPE Lab