Homeless College Students: A Budding Crisis

Homeless college students. 

When I first read that phrase, it sounded like an oxymoron. I had to read it three times before it settled into my consciousness. But as soon as it had settled, its implications began to grow on me and cause serious alarm.

Before World War II, higher education in America was primarily reserved for the financially and sometimes intellectually wealthy. Then, the New Deal programs and GI Bill consummated the White middle class. Colleges opened their doors to this post-war generation and their Baby Boomers. Also, the post-war desegregation struggle and the Black Campus Movement in the late 1960s and early 1970s forced open the doors of higher education for the rising Black middle class and other traditionally excluded groups. And the mid-century increase in the number of community colleges made the slice of Americans attending college even larger. As the 20th century marched on and agricultural, industrial, and manufacturing doors continued to close for Americans in their journey toward a livelihood, the doors to universities stayed open.

Into these collegiate doors are walking an increasing homeless student population in the 21st century. The Great Recession and the decision to invest America’s declining heap of resources in destruction abroad as opposed to construction at home is the cause of this seemingly oxymoron. Funds for colleges and universities continue to be slashed along with funds for student aid and programs. Meanwhile, the aspiring student population is growing increasing impoverished. In sum, there is a shrinking pool of money in higher education at the same time that more and more students are leaping into that pool in need.  

Community college enrollment rose as the economy fell. And not only are newly unemployed workers taking advantage of attractive programs at community colleges, but the impoverished are as well.

“It is a growing trend that people who are persistently poor and unhoused are taking advantage of programs at community colleges,” Neil Donovan, executive director of the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington, D.C., told the Star-Tribune.

College is popularized as the “escalator” to success in this country. But many financially strapped students are being diverted to the nearby stairs. Homelessness—not family issues, laziness, under-preparedness, or peer pressure—is part of that grueling trek up the incline, and it is regularly halting their progress.

One 32-year-old student, Christopher Sparks, who is majoring in computer support and administrative network at Minneapolis Community and Technical College (MCTC), sleeps at a homeless shelter on the edge of downtown Minneapolis.

“I hate it, but I have to survive,” Sparks told the Star-Tribune. “I wouldn’t wish this situation on my worst enemy.”

In 2009, the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth decided to learn just how many homeless college students there were in this country. Almost 47,204 students identified themselves as homeless on their financial aid application that year, according to the group’s policy director, Barbara Duffield. According to the Star-Tribune, an unscientific study found that an appalling 9.7 percent of 1,061 students at Sparks’ college identified as homeless. The survey also found that 15.5 percent of students frequently could not afford food.

It is our job in higher education to create the environment for people to fly intellectually, critically, and creatively. Yet, in order to fly, a strong base has to be in place. The basic needs of humanity need to be taken care of—food and shelter. We know that our ancestors did not really begin to provide each other with a higher education until they could take food and shelter for granted.

Instead of students using their intellectual, critical and creative energy in understanding and furthering the theories of W.E.B. Du Bois or bell hooks, dominating their thoughts are what they are going to eat, where they are going to sleep. I am sure that some of these homeless students are doing quite well. But even more, according to the Star-Tribune, are having serious trouble staying in school—dealing with high levels of stress and low levels of sleep.

I am alarmed about this situation not only out of concern for these tens of thousands of students furiously battling for what many take for granted—a college education. I am also alarmed about what Americans in general and the higher education community in particular may do when and if this homeless student population reaches a critical and defiant mass. 

What will happen when their presence is mainstreamed? Will they be stigmatized by their housing identity akin to some racial, gender, or sexual stigmas? Will they be embraced or denigrated? Will programs be initiated for them or will they be left isolated? Will on-campus shelters be opened for them? How will professors treat them? Will they be legally discriminated against by campus police like their non-student peers on downtown public streets and benches? Will diversity workers and officers devote some of their meager resources to them? Or will the discriminated discriminate against them?

This homeless student population is rapidly growing by the semester. It is time we start looking for the answers to these questions and preparing for the future—actually, in many cases, preparing for today.