After a hectic day of juggling classes, studying, extracurricular activities and even jobs, many college students retreat to their residence halls or apartments to decompress. But given the high cost of rent in cities across the country, financial uncertainty brought on by the coronavirus pandemic and limited campus housing options – especially at community colleges – not all students have a place to call home.
Fifty-two percent of students at two-year colleges experienced some form of housing insecurity in fall 2020, along with 43% of students at four-year institutions, according to The Hope Center for College, Community and Justice's #RealCollegeSurvey, published in March 2021. The number of four-year college students who were housing insecure jumped nearly 23% compared to the year prior.
Students of color, parenting students and students who identified as LGBTQ were more likely to face housing insecurity than their peers, the survey found.
"College students are not immune to the broader issues of housing affordability and housing scarcity that face communities across the country," says Mark Huelsman, director of policy and advocacy at The Hope Center, which is based at Temple University in Pennsylvania.
Housing insecurity encompasses a broad set of housing challenges, including the inability to pay rent or utilities, moving frequently, loss of housing or living in an apartment or house above capacity.
What that often looks like in colleges is students sleeping on their friends' couches or floors, living out of their cars or staying in overcrowded apartments, says Mary Haskett, a professor of psychology at North Carolina State University and co-chair of the university's Steering Committee on Student Food and Housing Security.
Friends "can kick you out at any point and they do, so students are living with their items in a bag ready to be evicted and find another place to live," she says. "It's a constant stressor, which impacts students' mental health and wellness."
Research indicates that students facing housing insecurity have poorer health, higher rates of depression and anxiety and lower GPAs compared to their peers.
With the coronavirus pandemic shedding light on basic needs insecurity among college students, more schools are establishing basic needs hubs, affordable housing options and safe parking programs, experts say.
Yet many students are unaware of the resources, don't know they're eligible or are embarrassed to seek out help, according to The Hope Center survey.
"We can't expect students to learn or persist through college if they're concerned about keeping a roof over their heads and their families’ heads, in many cases," Huelsman says.
Housing insecure students also experience challenges with other basic needs. To provide more holistic support, Portland State University in Oregon, for instance, developed a basic needs hub on its campus.
Students can get emergency grants; food assistance, such as a pantry on campus, fresh produce distribution and emergency meal vouchers; and short- and long-term housing services.
"We go around to all the resource centers and student-led organizations and educate staff, faculty and students on breaking down some of that stigma" around basic needs insecurity, says Lee Ann Phillips, a basic needs navigator at PSU. "Housing insecurity is incredibly dominant within college settings so we are trying to normalize it as best as we possibly can for students."
In addition to providing campus resources, some schools work with nonprofits or other local organizations to find temporary affordable housing solutions for their students.
NC State partnered with the Bishop William Earl Lee Foundation, a nonprofit aimed at ending intergenerational homelessness, to launch the Housing Options for Students Today program. Community members in the Raleigh area open their homes to NC State students at risk of homelessness. The program aims to eventually support students at HBCUs and community colleges in Raleigh as well.
Students might stay only a few nights or up to several months at the hosts' homes. To ensure safe living conditions for students, hosts are vetted through a background check and home visit, and are required to complete a two-day training session. The program hopes to start serving students by the summer, according to Haskett.
Similarly, PSU, Portland Community College and Mt. Hood Community College partnered with two nonprofits to establish the Affordable Rents for College Students program. Participating students receive subsidized housing, reduced utility costs and waived security deposits and application fees.
Other schools have offered hotels as short-term housing options. Using some of its federal COVID-19 relief funding, Southwestern College in California bought vouchers for students to temporarily stay at the nearby Red Roof Inn. The school is currently working toward longer-term solutions, with eventual plans to build affordable housing on campus.
"You have these young people who are, against all odds, trying to improve their futures and move their lives forward," says Kelly Hall, assistant superintendent and vice president of business and financial affairs at Southwestern. "We want to do whatever we can do to try and remove barriers from them accessing their education."
Parking in abandoned lots or overnight on campus to sleep can not only lead to fines or car towing, but it can also be dangerous.
Long Beach City College in California established a safe parking program that allows students to sleep in their vehicles in a secure campus location seven nights a week, with access to restrooms, showers and Wi-Fi.
"That's not a sustainable solution by any means, but for those who do live in their cars, safety is a top issue," says David Helene, founder and chief executive officer of Edquity, a company that works with colleges to improve students' financial security.
With California residents in particular dealing with high rent and home displacement caused by wildfires in recent years, several community colleges in the state – including Orange Coast College, Santa Rosa Junior College and Southwestern – created plans to build affordable on-campus housing.
Santa Rosa, for instance, is set to open student housing in the fall of 2023, housing 352 students at below-market prices. Housing options range from a single room with a communal bathroom to a four-bedroom apartment. Furniture and utilities are included in the rent prices.
"We're going to have a process in place to be able to find the students that are most in need and make sure they get priority," including those who identify as veterans, homeless, low-income or foster youth, says Pedro Avila, vice president of student services at Santa Rosa.
Meanwhile, Orange Coast College completed its student housing complex in August 2020. Available apartments include studios, one-bedroom, two-bedroom and four-bedroom apartments. The units have study areas, and furniture and utilities are included in the cost.
"The past two years of a global pandemic have been extremely challenging for college students (and many others), significantly impacting their mental health," Angelica Suarez, the president of OCC, wrote in an email. "Having the ability to provide students with a college residential experience that embraces the needs of the whole student (financial, social/emotional, academic) allows them to see a clearer path to their future."