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Study: Community College Housing Program Produced Better Life Outcomes


Education Northwest, an Oregon-based nonprofit organization promoting education for all, unveiled the results on Tuesday of a first-of-its kind, nine-year study of the partnership between Tacoma Community College (TCC) and the Tacoma Housing Authority (THA), called the College Housing Assistance Program (CHAP). The longitudinal study followed 422 housing insecure students, who were given the opportunity to apply for a housing voucher to lower the cost of a private housing unit.

The results reveal that, even if students were not able to access a voucher or find housing, connection to the CHAP program improved their ability to get a job, their health, and their well-being. Instances of involvement with the criminal justice system diminished. Students’ connection with CHAP helped them to more easily access other supports, like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), two federal programs that address food insecurity.

Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of the study and senior fellow at Education Northwest.Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of the study and senior fellow at Education Northwest.“I’ve studied food insecurity across multiple community colleges,” said Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, senior fellow at Education Northwest and one of the authors of the report. “These are the most promising results we’ve seen to reduce food insecurity and help people eat every day. It might show that it’s not food people need, it’s housing.”

The results of the study may be key to helping higher education, and in particular community colleges, understand the vital importance of supporting a student’s housing and basic needs, said Dr. Ivan L. Harrell II, president of TCC.

“The data is very clear: our students aren’t leaving because they don’t have the academic ability — they leave because of life circumstances,” said Harrell. “How can we meet our mission as community colleges if we do not do all we can to address what’s impacting our students?”

Washington state sees over 25,000 homeless individuals daily, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness’s 2023 study. But it’s not just a problem facing the West Coast. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) found on any given night in the U.S. in January 2022, roughly 582,000 people experienced homelessness.

For students, the unhoused data points can be shocking.

“Housing insecurity effects one in every two students, and homelessness effects 8% of students,” said Goldrick-Rab. Understanding why, she added, confronts the myth that community college is “inexpensive.” In reality, after grants and scholarships, one year of community college “now costs students an excess of $15,000 a year,” said Goldrick-Rab.

CHAP participants were separated by the THA into two separate categories: homeless and near homeless. Approved students received a housing voucher of $450, which almost halved the average $1,000 monthly rent. While the majority of homeless students were able to receive a voucher, near-homeless students were less likely to receive help. And even if a student received a housing voucher, they encountered discrimination from landlords, which meant that only one out of every four students who received a voucher was able to lease.

“We know in the general population, vouchers are discriminated against. We found students in double jeopardy — some landlords said, ‘I don’t want to rent to college students,’ based on stereotypes of students as partiers and unemployed,” said Goldrick-Rab. “In this case, community college students average age was around 30. Many are raising children, working, like any other low-income person who you might not know is a college student — yet, they had more difficulty because of landlord attitudes.”

Students who successfully leased saw increased graduation rates, eight to 12 percentage points higher than the national average community college graduation rate of 35%. Forty-three percent of homeless students who became housed graduated by the study’s conclusion, and 57% of the near-homeless students who became housed were able to complete. For near-homeless students who didn’t receive housing, 45% still graduated.

Dr. Sheila Edwards Lange, chancellor of the University of Washington (UW) Tacoma.Dr. Sheila Edwards Lange, chancellor of the University of Washington (UW) Tacoma.The authors of a study produced a diagram of student needs that must be met to achieve whole student success, which includes nine vital ingredients: safe and affordable housing, food security, time, childcare, transportation, health supports, quick and streamlined access to programs, respect and empathy, and safety.

“What would it look like if we understood our roles in higher education within this lens?” asked Goldrick-Rab, noting that funds used in support of these needs provide a greater return on investment.

Dr. Sheila Edwards Lange, chancellor of the University of Washington (UW) Tacoma, said her institution is already applying lessons from the research. One particular lesson they have learned, said Edwards Lange, is that traditional student affairs education might not prepare administrators for what it takes to support housing insecure students. Helping these students, she said, has become more of a social-work, case-management skill, and UW Tacoma is looking for social workers to help them better understand how to serve their students.

In 2022, THA decided to end the CHAP program, but Harrell and other experts agreed that CHAP (and this study) have had a profound impact on students’ lives, and institutions must take the steps necessary, whether its developing local partnerships or building housing options, to help students keep a roof over their heads.

One CHAP participating student wrote an email in thanks, which Goldrick-Rab read: “This program was a Godsend. I will soon be making enough money to support my family. I don’t know if I would have gotten through [what I went through] without the help,” the student wrote. “Please keep doing what you are doing. There are others out there like me.”

Liann Herder can be reached at [email protected].

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