A Look at Student Homelessness and Possible Solutions

Nathan Collins, Research Intern SBNC

February 2021

The needs of college students in the United States have increased steadily over the years. Where once the main stressor of college was funding alone has now evolved into a housing crisis epidemic for students. With a heightened emphasis on holding credentials from either a two-year or four-year institution, the draw for many students to enter the higher academic arena is much larger, and yet basic needs, specifically housing, are not being met for a large portion of college students. The problems facing college students do not just end at applying for admissions and filing for financial aid. The onus of supporting all students, specifically regarding the basic needs of said students, is on part of the institution and the community. This brief will begin with outlining the specific problems and factors leading the college student homelessness. Then moving to more detailed facts regarding demographics of college students facing housing insecurity, and finally concluding with policy recommendations to counteract the effects of these problems.

The Problem:

The traditional debate over higher education in the United States has long hovered around the idea of rising tuition, the necessity of higher academia, and the emphasis on graduating from a prestigious school. The stark realization is that the problems facing college students range far beyond what is traditionally thought of. The blight of college student homelessness is now added to the usual stressors of classwork and rigorous extracurriculars. According to a recent study, nearly 60% of two-year institution students and 48% of four-year institution students experience varying forms of housing insecurity (College and University Basic Needs Insecurity: A National #RealCollege Survey Report, The Hope Center, April 2019). These varying degrees of insecurity or homelessness are referred to as a “person [who] does not have a stable place to live” (#RealCollege Survey Report, April 2019). College student homelessness adds to the bigger issue regarding the cost of college.

The published tuition and fees associated with attending a private four-year university is 3.6 times as high as the price for a public four-year university, and the average published price of college has risen nearly $20,000 since 1990 (Trends In College Pricing and Student Aid 2020, New York: CollegeBoard). The costs associated not only with tuition and fees but also student expenditures have risen to the point of excess, detailing a clear correlation with college student homelessness.

Critical Issues / Challenges:

Rising tuition costs:

One of the most pressing issues facing college students today is rising tuition costs. Detailed in the CollegeBoard Trends in College Pricing and Student Aid 2020, are figures showering the rapid increase of college tuition, fees, and student expenditures over the last thirty years. Where college might have been financially attainable for a large number of communities, that number has surely dwindled leading to students who make it into college, now have to struggle to keep up with basic needs. The College Board study also outlined the increase in state-funded aid for college students, citing it as “about the same in 2018-19 as it was in 2007-08, just before the Great Recession in 2008” (College Board, 2020). This correlates to student homelessness since a major factor for affording to the house is the ability to retain funds, or rather not spend them all on tuition.

Lack of School Funded support:

A 2018 study conducted by the U.S. Government Accountability Office showed that as of September 2018 over 650 colleges reported having a food pantry to offset some of the food-related insecurity that students face as a result of rising college costs. However, this is not enough to help soften the homelessness issue facing college students. Most college campuses close down for winter recess which poses a unique threat to international students, students who cannot afford to travel home for the holidays or come from unsafe home environments. All of these challenges factor into an area of the university experience that we often take for granted.

Disparities among different demographics:

According to the Hope Center report from 2019, the overall rate of food insecurity among students identifying as African American or Black is 58% (#RealCollege Survey, Hope Center 2019). Statistics like these factor into the overall disparity between students of color, and those who do not identify as a person of color. It is important to note that as we move forward in reforming the higher education tradition, that we take note of the different factors that racial, gender and sexual orientation designations add to the college experience as well as the disproportionate adverse effects of college homelessness on these communities.

Main Issues / Plan of Action:

The issue of college student homelessness cannot be ignored for much longer. With the advent of rising college costs, the modern university student faces more than just a rigorous academic life. The main ways to counteract the student homelessness epidemic start with the individual institution. One possible course of action would be to keep college campus dorms and residential living spaces, staff throughout the winter break. This would not only provide students an alternative living option but would also provide hours to university staff. If guaranteed housing scholarships were more readily available for students, this would also offset the possible housing crisis. The best option, however, would be for universities to ultimately, and uniformly lower the cost of tuition, allowing for students to better budget their higher academia, and understanding that college student homelessness will only increase from here if something is not done soon.

Current Measures in Place:

Although these issues do persist, some universities have taken it upon themselves to supply alternative resources for students faced with basic needs insecurities. These measures include food pantries, subsidized off-campus housing, meal assistance, and work-study. These measures do aid in helping students who face insecurities, however, it is not enough.

Work cited:

“Trends in Higher Education – Research – College Board.” Research, 30 Oct. 2019,

Goldrick-Rab, Sara, et al. College, and University Basic Needs Insecurity: A National #RealCollege Survey Report. Apr. 2019.