Practical steps colleges can take to support their homeless students

Provide housing options and connect students with existing resources

"We're not a social service agency; we want to educate students. But in order to do that, they can't be hungry and they can't be homeless," says Gail O. Mello, president of LaGuardia Community College.

Other universities have taken the same view, as more of them strive to support a homeless student population that is increasingly hailing from working and middle class families, writes Elizabeth A. Harris for the New York Times.

A recent study by the University of Wisconsin found that 14% of community college students are homeless. The survey included more than 33,000 students at 70 community colleges in 24 states.

It's not just community colleges. Students attending selective, four-year institutions are also affected. Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of the HOPE Lab and a professor of higher education policy at Temple University, says good-paying jobs for those who don't yet have a college degree are scarce.

Furthermore, as colleges have worked to improve access, more low-income students are attending who do not have a safety net, says Goldrick-Rab. For some students, if they lose housing, their parents may not have the resources to provide a back-up plan.

Here are a few creative ways colleges and universities are supporting housing-insecure students: 

  • Leave dorms open during breaks. While many students are headed to comfortable homes, homeless students have no place to go. Leaving dorms open can provide a safe place for them to stay, as Amherst College does during the summer.
  • Start a homeless shelter. Last year a small group of students at the University of California, Los Angeles opened a shelter for their peers. The shelter provides its residents with meals, a place to sleep, and a study area.
  • Help students find public benefits. LaGuardia Community College has a food pantry and helps students apply for public benefits, such as food stamps.

Keeping students in school is a mutual goal for the university and the students. As Harris notes, this cannot be accomplished if they have to constantly worry about where they will sleep (Harris, New York Times, 4/7; HOPE Lab report, accessed 4/7).

More recommendations for helping students experiencing homelessness and hunger

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