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Housing First, Graduation Follows: Lessons from the College Housing Assistance Program

Remember the knock-on effect? That's exactly what Education Northwest’s recent evaluation of the College Housing Assistance Program (CHAP) in Tacoma, Washington, underscores. By addressing the fundamental need for stable housing, CHAP empowered students, particularly those facing homelessness or housing insecurity, to achieve academic success. It also made it possible for them to become healthier and supported their families’ financial security. This isn't charity, it's strategic investment.

Dr. Sara Goldrick-RabDr. Sara Goldrick-RabThe headlines scream "Free Housing Boosts College Completion!" – a message that resonates. But let's dig deeper. CHAP provided housing vouchers, not blank checks. It offered stability, a foundation upon which students could build their educational goals. The results are clear: over half the students in the program – and a staggering 70% of homeless students who secured housing – completed a credential, transferred, or stayed on track for a degree.

This isn't happenstance. Maslow's hierarchy applies to education, too. When basic needs like shelter are precarious, focusing on skill-building becomes an impossible feat. CHAP addressed that fundamental need, allowing students to shift their mental energy from "where will I sleep tonight?" or “how will I pay this month’s rent?” to "how can I ace this exam?"

The benefits extend beyond graduation rates. Housing security fosters well-being. Imagine the stress of couch-surfing or fearing eviction. CHAP demonstrably improved student mental and physical health, creating greater ability for students to thrive personally and academically. This isn't surprising. Stable housing promotes better sleep, less anxiety, and a stronger sense of self-worth – all crucial ingredients for academic success.  It also facilitates greater connections to the labor force; evaluators found that students in the program were more likely to work and earn to feed their families.

Dr. Ivan HarrellDr. Ivan HarrellOf course, there's room for improvement. Most students who applied and were admitted to the program were not housed because they struggled with the program’s bureaucracy and had trouble finding private landlords to rent to them. Those problems are also common in housing authority programs for non-students and must be addressed.  We need to reform the Low Income Housing Tax Credit’s eligibility rules so that more affordable housing can be created for community college students, eliminate student restrictions on access to public housing, and revise land use and zoning rules to increase the affordability of rental housing.  College leaders should do their part to make sure local, state, and federal policymakers understand that affordable housing is a higher education priority essential to the mission of promoting social mobility.

The evaluation also highlighted the need for additional support services to address the unique challenges faced by students experiencing homelessness. Staff must be equipped to provide high quality case management services in many ways that mimic the important work of social workers, which includes coordinating needed support with community agencies. Emergency funds are required to help students afford utilities, security deposits, and so on.

Housing is not a barrier to overcome, it's a pathway to success, including in college.  CHAP was a model for the nation, proving that addressing housing insecurity isn't a separate fight; it's an integral part of the educational equity equation. Unfortunately, the Tacoma Housing Authority sun-setted CHAP during the evaluation, and while the state of Washington is funding housing pilots, we do not yet have sustainable and scalable alternative solutions for Tacoma students experiencing housing insecurity. Let's learn from this evaluation and build stronger housing programs across the higher education landscape. By ensuring stable housing for all students, we can unlock their full potential and build a brighter future, one graduation gown at a time.

Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab is author of Paying the Price, College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream. She is a senior fellow at Education Northwest, an adjunct professor at the Community College of Philadelphia, and Founder of The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice.

Dr. Ivan Harrell serves as the president of Tacoma Community College (WA).

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