The stereotype of the broke or homeless college student has become ingrained in the American psyche for years now. The idea of a student living off of ramen noodles and constantly going hungry because they can’t afford anything else has somehow become synonymous with college life; and that’s disconcerting.
Why it's acceptable for college students to go hungry in one of the world’s most privileged nations is beyond me. But there’s an epidemic even more asinine than college hunger that nobody is talking about: homeless college students.
A recent survey released by the Hope Center points out that 56 percent of respondents were housing insecure and 45 percent are food insecure each month. These results hit home, because I was once part of that statistic.
My family experienced a one-month-long stint of homelessness a few years ago. This happened just a couple of months before I was scheduled to take online classes at Northern Kentucky University and about six months before I was scheduled to return to campus for the new school year.
It was frightening to be unsure of whether or not we would be able to sleep the next day. I was lucky enough that I didn’t need to live on the streets. Unfortunately, some people don’t have that good fortune.
Homeless College Students and Financial Insecurity
We talked with Toni Airaksinen, a student at Barnard College and an advocate for homeless college students. She shared some insights on the challenges faced by college students with food and housing insecurity.
1. Many Homeless Students Lack Basic Financial Literacy
“Homeless college students often come from foster care youth, lower income youth, and youth with parents who have been involved in the prison system,” Ariaksinen explains.
Because they got bounced around a lot growing up, they’re far less likely to have guardians who teach them financial basics, such as how interest rates and credit work or how to check their credit scores.
2. They May Be More Likely to Use Payday Loans
“Because homeless college students often lack reliable transportation, it is more difficult to access a preferred bank,” Ariaksinen points out. As a result, they are more likely to fall prey to loan sharks and payday loans.
3. They’re More Likely to Suffer from Failing Grades
Not having enough food to eat or a place to sleep at night makes it difficult to stay on top of coursework. Housing and food insecury can cause lost sleep, increased stress, illness, and poorer academic performance, according to a study by Trellis Research. Poverty has a major impact on their education.
These failing grades mean that the students need to retake classes, take longer to graduate, and have less chance of getting into a graduate or professional program.
So are there any possible solutions to help homeless youth in college with their financial literacy? Well…
How to Aid Homeless College Students
1. Spread Financial Literacy Programs at Youth Centers
If more homeless youth centers implemented financial literacy programs and allocated more resources, incoming college students could be better prepared to deal with the stresses and challenges of college life.
2. Connect Financial Aid Offices With Resources for Homeless College Students
Ariaksinen suggests that financial aid offices on campuses should have someone on staff who can advise homeless students on the resources that may be available to them. This could include local food pantries, shelters, and food stamp benefits.
How to Help Homeless College Students
One thing is abundantly clear: A student homelessness problem exists among college students in the United States. But what can we do to fix it?
National awareness campaigns could be beneficial. The more people in our country who know that this is an issue, the more inclined schools and lawmakers will be to do something about it.
An awareness campaign spearheaded by students who have experienced homelessness themselves could gain some real traction in the public spotlight.
The real work will get done by state lawmakers and individual schools, though. It’s important that they set aside a piece of the budget to help homeless college students. That way, these students don’t have to worry about their grades dipping — or worse, having to drop out because of their housing situation.
It would be great progress to have a fund that students can access to provide temporary housing; or even better, set aside some dorm rooms for students to access if they have housing issues.
For individual help, you can get in touch with a food pantry on a nearby campus to donate some goods or money. You can even volunteer your time.
Start looking for volunteer opportunities through the College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), which boasts 400 members, or through colleges and universities that have food banks on their campuses.
If you’re feeling particularly gung-ho and have the background for it, opt to teach a basic financial literacy workshop on a college campus or at a youth shelter. These workshops are invaluable to college students. You can also get in touch with a group like the National Center for Homeless Education to possibly link efforts.
Homelessness among college students certainly isn’t going anywhere soon. But there are ways we can help improve students’ financial literacy as they deal with their daily struggles.
The Root of the Student Homelessness Issue
The root of this problem isn’t that students are unable to afford housing. Rather, it’s that they’re sacrificing housing so that they can meet the exorbitantly high cost of higher education.
One year of tuition and fees at a public, four-year institution has gone up to $10,740, according to the College Board. And that number is expected to continue skyrocketing.
This isn't just a problem for those experiencing housing disparity. It also affects the tens of thousands of students whose families don’t make enough to foot the bill, and yet still don’t qualify for financial aid.
As the cost of education skyrockets, more and more students will experience hardship unless schools implement solutions and allocate resources to attack this problem.
I’ve experienced these struggles firsthand, and I have to say, it is not fun. Having to worry about your housing situation, your family’s well-being, and your classes all at the same time is something that I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.