Even if you're not in college or know anyone who is, you've likely heard about the rapidly increasing costs attached to attaining higher education. Yes, it's much, much more expensive than it was 30 years ago: college costs have risen eight times faster than wages have, and college is twice as expensive as it used to be. In 1989, it cost an average of $52,892 (in today's dollars) to complete four years — and now it's $104,480.
At the same time that costs have risen so sharply, a college degree has become a requirement for more jobs. All of this has led to something else you've probably heard about — punishing, decades-long debt for many students. Put that all together and there's good reason we have the surprisingly high rates of homelessness among college students that we currently do.
According to a study from Temple University and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, 36 percent of students told researchers they were housing insecure, which means they're unsure of whether they will be able to rely on their current housing in the near future. And 9 percent reported being homeless. A survey of the California State University system found similar numbers: About 10 percent of students were homeless at some point in the prior year. The rates are even higher at community colleges; the study found that 46 percent said they had trouble paying for housing and utilities.
How did they get to this point?
There are many reasons a college student might be homeless. They could have gotten tuition and books paid for via a scholarship or grant, but not housing, so they attend classes and sleep in their car. They may have lost the job that was paying their rent, but already paid for classes for the semester. Some students might have aged out of the foster system during college, so they went from living in a group home or with a family to going it alone as soon as their 18th birthday rolls around.
According to the Temple University study, "60 percent of former foster youth who completed this survey were food insecure and housing insecure, and almost 1 in 4 had experienced homelessness in the last year."
Students who come from poor families are the most at-risk. "It really undermines their ability to do well in school. Their grades suffer, their test scores appear to be lower, and overall, their chances of graduating are slimmer. They can barely escape their conditions of poverty long enough to complete their degrees," Sara Goldrick-Rab, a lead author of the Temple University report and a professor of higher-education policy there, told NPR.
But middle-class students also going homeless more often, too.
So how do students actually make attending school and homelessness work?
Some live out of their cars. They sleep and keep their stuff in cars or trucks, and then use college facilities to take showers or do laundry.
Jasmine, featured in the video at top, goes to Humboldt State University in Northern California, where one-fifth of the students are homeless. She's a senior who majored in kinesiology, and she has a full ride academic scholarship that doesn't cover living expenses, so she ended up living out of her van. She carries everything she needs for the day with her, including workout clothes and sneakers. She keeps other items in her on-campus locker. She says she's applied for housing, but never heard anything back from landlords.
A surprising openness
You might be surprised by both the openness many students have about being homeless and the positive attitudes they have about their situations: "Actually, it's convenient as a student, because most academic institutions have really great facilities and the hours are pretty good," says Vanessa, cheerily, in the video above.
Another student at Humboldt State, Nolan, keeps his clothes in two lockers: One for dirty stuff, one for clean. He told a reporter that he has all kinds of systems, saying he's "hacked out" how to make it work. The geology major says he doesn't want to go into the debt he would need to if he got a loan for housing.
Not having a home requires a lot of extra work and planning, as Jonah Feehery points out in his video (the first on this page). Showers need to planned-for in advance, as is phone or other device-charging, and food storage is minimal. But he's organized and dedicated to his classes, and he frequently checks his bank balance, saying, "I document how much money I spend because the whole point of living in my car is to save money."
There are a number of new initiatives gearing up, especially at public universities, to help homeless college students, from keeping dorms open during breaks to making more emergency housing available to those who need it. There are also movements to help those who are food-insecure, which is another common issue. But many colleges are just learning that hundreds or even thousands of their students might not have a home while they are in school.