The blog of the Urban Institute
April 9, 2021

How to Support College Students Experiencing Homelessness during the COVID-19 Pandemic and Beyond

A recent survey by the Hope Center of more than 195,000 two-year and four-year college students found that about half experienced housing insecurity and about one in seven reported they either experienced homelessness or lacked a stable living situation.

Pervasive historical and structural racism cause stark disparities among these students: the 2019 survey found rates of homelessness were higher for Black students (20 percent) and Indigenous students (31 percent) than for white students (17 percent). LGBTQ+ students also experience high rates of homelessness. And COVID-19, which has disproportionately affected people of color, exacerbates students’ risk for homelessness.

Students experiencing homelessness are at greater academic risk than their peers. Many maintain demanding work schedules to pay for school and living expenses, limiting time available for studies. Losing access to dormitories and dining halls during school breaks also adds the stress of finding other places to stay. Stress can lead to decreased sleep and increased strain on physical and mental health, which can further impede academic achievement.

Federal policymakers and academic institutions can support students most in need by confronting evolving barriers faced by homeless and housing-insecure students by creating comprehensive and targeted supports.

Systemic barriers obstruct meeting basic needs

College students experiencing homelessness face barriers in accessing housing. Both on- and off-campus housing can be prohibitively expensive. Those who turn to the private rental market may face multiple forms of housing discrimination from landlords, including racial discrimination, source of income discrimination, and discrimination against students. Some affordable housing options also impose eligibility restrictions on students.

They also face food insecurity. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one federal resource to alleviate food insecurity, but like other social safety net programs, it ignores barriers rooted in structural racism and imposes punitive measures, like work requirements, that force students to either prioritize their education over hunger or sacrifice education by working sufficient hours to access SNAP benefits. The program’s eligibility criteria and past rules have made it difficult for students enrolled at least half time, and young people in particular, to access benefits; in 2019, only about 1 in 5 of two-year college students and 1 in 10 of four-year college students experiencing homelessness accessed SNAP.

Postsecondary students also experience financial insecurity at greater rates, with many young people falling through the gaps of a social safety net that lacks a coherent approach for them. Often, students experiencing financial insecurity are required to piece together a tangled net of disconnected resources, as well as state and institutional aid, to fund tuition and costs of living. Additionally, students experiencing homelessness may face dangers in accessing basic needs; a recent study of 641 homeless and runaway young people who received shelter services also found one in five had experienced some form of human trafficking.

COVID-19 has exacerbated existing barriers

The COVID-19 crisis has revealed the shortcomings of the system as students have struggled to make ends meet. Colleges themselves provide supports to students, including campus food pantries, assistance with obtaining SNAP, and campus health clinics. But the Hope Center survey found most students experiencing basic needs insecurity hadn't accessed these supports, and during the pandemic, they face increased vulnerability and uncertainty as college classes move online and these resources become less accessible. The massive digital divide exposed by the pandemic also poses its own challenges for remote learning.

Recommendations for federal policymakers and college campuses

Federal policymakers can take several steps to increase benefits for students experiencing homelessness, begin to deconstruct the barriers they face, and advance racial equity by alleviating housing, food, and financial insecurity that have hit communities of color the hardest.

  1. Prioritize emergency aid grants for students. Emergency aid grants help students get through crises that may otherwise cause them to drop out. In March 2020, the federal government allocated $6 billion to student aid. But aid application and receipt was low for students with basic-needs insecurity, and community colleges received significantly less support than four-year institutions. Federal lawmakers could consider investing in emergency aid beyond what has already been funded and prioritizing community colleges that serve part-time students and students more vulnerable to basic-needs insecurity by improving funding allocation formulas.
  2. Expand eligibility for and size of SNAP. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 temporarily makes it easier for students enrolled at least half time to access SNAP. But SNAP only provides about $1.39 per person per meal, on average, which is inadequate for adolescents and young adults with higher consumption levels. Federal policymakers can consider permanently closing eligibility gaps and increasing benefit levels.
  3. Strengthen fair housing protections. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development can take several steps to address the discrimination, segregation, and exclusion caused by a history of discriminatory housing policies, including affirmatively furthering fair housing and enforcing the disparate impact standard.

College campuses can also take several steps to improve identification and outreach efforts and connect students experiencing homelessness to supports.

  1. Improve identification at college campuses and increase outreach efforts. Identifying students experiencing homelessness can be challenging. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid asks about homelessness. Colleges can improve their own identification and outreach efforts by asking about unaccompanied homelessness in application and registration materials outside of the aid application, designating on-campus liaisons to connect students to on-campus and off-campus resources, and marketing available resources to students through university websites and course syllabi.
  2. Connect students with affordable on-campus housing. Colleges can reserve lower-cost, on-campus housing slots for higher-need students. They can also create plans to fill housing gaps during breaks and emergencies so students facing housing insecurity have year-round access to housing.
  3. Partner with local organizations. Institutions can build relationships with local agencies to leverage resources to meet a wide array of student needs. In Tacoma, Washington, the local community college and housing authority partnered to provide housing vouchers and supportive academic and career services to students experiencing homelessness. Other colleges have coordinated with housing authorities to create similar housing and academic supportive programs, and others have worked with landlords and agencies to secure more affordable housing options for students. They can also partner with local food banks, child care providers, and transit systems to meet students’ other needs.
  4. Identify student pathways to emergency funds. Many postsecondary institutions received CARES Act Higher Education Emergency Relief Funds, but students in need may not be aware of their eligibility to receive emergency funds. Institutions can allocate these funds to support students’ basic needs and work with students and student groups, including those who face structural racism and discrimination, to identify ways to make these funds more accessible for students most at risk of basic-needs insecurity.

Graduate student Aubrey Simonson protests inside Building 10 on the campus of Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)  on March 12, 2020 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Students have been asked to move out of their dorms by March 17because of the COVID-19 risk. Protestors are frustrated by MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests. All classes will be moved online for the rest of the spring semester. (Photo by Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

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