Each morning, Alexis Eanes and her two children would emerge from their two-door silver Honda Civic Coupe parked in Upper Manhattan and walk across the street to the elementary school the children attended. The receptionist arrived early to let them into the bathroom to clean up before starting their day. For three weeks last year, Eanes and her children lived out of her car while she attended Bronx Community College. The reason she didn’t park in the Bronx, she says, is that police would ask her to leave in the middle of the night and other homeless people would attempt to get into her car while her family was sleeping.
Eanes, during that time, was homeless—one of the hundreds of thousands of students attending community college in America who don’t have a safe place to sleep.
As college costs rise to the top of the American political debate, the housing crisis faced by many students has recently begun to surface as an underappreciated crisis that can be far more harmful than even the high price of tuition. This week, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders revamped his “College for All” education plan to incorporate nontuition costs including housing — following the lead of Elizabeth Warren, who released a plan earlier this year that would also allow more federal aid to be used on housing.
In the public imagination, the college “affordability” problem is still largely a matter of tuition, or rising fees. But a striking new study shows that housing costs can actually be one of the biggest burdens on students, and it’s among community college students where this problem hits the hardest. It also suggests that there are problems many “free college” proposals might not fix.
Community colleges, with tuition as low as $46 per unit, are typically seen as the more accessible path to higher education for much of America. Nearly 6 million students—just over a third of all undergraduates—are enrolled in a community college. Yet, because of the way public financial aid is calculated and disbursed, and because community college students have fewer options to supplement that aid, many community college students can actually end up paying more out of pocket to attend community college than students enrolled in four-year universities.
In Eanes case, she received federal financial aid to cover her tuition at BCC—but not enough to be able to afford the high cost of rent in New York City. And her situation is not unique. The recent study by the HOPE Center found that nearly 1 in 5 community college students in the U.S. experienced homelessness in the past year—defined by the researchers as living out of a car, a shelter or on the street—while up to 60 percent were “housing insecure,” which means unable to pay full rent or moving frequently because of an inability to find stable housing. HOPE found similar results just in California; another report suggests that as many as half of students attending City University of New York schools have experienced housing or food insecurity.
While community college tuition may be lower, students can find the costs of attending less affordable than four-year colleges. That’s because the actual total cost of attendance also includes housing, food, transportation, books and personal items—just as it does for four-year college students. But unlike many four-year institutions, most community colleges don’t have dorms on campus, so students have to live off campus where rents can be much higher than on campus options.
Moreover, there are fewer grants made to community college students, and those they get rarely cover the full difference between costs and ability to pay; as a result, students often have to rely on loans as a supplementary form of assistance. Federal and state student loans, however, which typically offer lower interest rates and better deferred repayment options than private loans, are often capped at only the cost of tuition for community college students. Private loans don’t fill the gap: Most are geared primarily toward four-year degree programs and many community college borrowers can’t qualify, often because they have no credit history.
The mission of community colleges has evolved in recent decades. Once primarily seen as either a steppingstone for young adults still living at home to get into four-year college, or as a part-time endeavor for working adults seeking to further their education in their spare time, community colleges are increasingly also promoted as a full-time alternative to attending four-year colleges. But financial aid systems haven’t kept up with this evolution.
Students at California community colleges, for example, do not qualify for state grants at the same rate as those attending the more expensive University of California or California State University schools. According to a 2016 report 78 percent of Cal Grant funding went to UCs and CSUs while only 7 percent went to community colleges, even though community college students made up 65 percent of the state’s undergraduates.
Also, unlike many four-year institutions, most community colleges aren’t able to offer their own additional aid to the neediest students for things like room and board or meal plans. In the 2015-16 school year, just 13.5 percent of students at public two-year colleges received institutional aid, compared with 47.3 percent of students at public four-year colleges, despite the fact that a greater share of students in poverty are attending two-year colleges.
The Higher Education Act—which was originally passed in 1965 as an effort to ensure every individual could afford college—deals with federal financial aid programs but does not specifically address housing security. It comes up for reauthorization next year, and some legislators have introduced amendments to change that; it’s not clear whether any of them might be passed and enacted—and even if they were, whether they would solve the housing problem facing community college students.
SEVERAL STATES ARE experimenting with potential solutions.
Washington state’s Legislature is considering a bill that would encourage schools via a pilot program to provide students with financial assistance to cover costs beyond tuition, and it would require participating community colleges to report data on students experiencing homelessness to the Legislature. Massachusetts’ Department of Education is piloting a program with eight campuses, including four-year universities, to use available dorm space at four-year colleges to house homeless students from community colleges. And California has three bills—including one that would expand community college financial aid in the state to include need-based grants that could be used toward housing costs (rather than just the waiving of tuition and fees as is the current approach)—coming up for a vote in the state Legislature. These would offer the most wide-ranging potential support for homeless and housing-insecure community college students to date—if they pass—and could serve as a model for the federal government.
A former homeless student in Northern California, Alexis Barries, who lived out of her car while she was a freshman at Santa Rosa Junior College just north of San Francisco in 2012, now works as a youth advocate and wishes the issue of student homelessness was paid more attention. Most people don’t realize, she says, “that it is illegal to sleep in your car in California, illegal to be homeless actually. I had to find a spot where I could lay low.” (A federal appeals court just ruled last year that laws that criminalize homelessness, which were rapidly growing in recent years, fall under cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Constitution.)
Another of the proposed bills in California would require community colleges to allow homeless students to park overnight on campus. “It can be very cost efficient and serve more students while not draining existing resources,” says Teresa Smith, CEO of Dreams for Change, an organization in San Diego that has been operating safe parking for over nine years in the city. California state law already requires community college campuses to have shower and bathroom facilities accessible for students on campus.
“We tell our California youth that in order for them to succeed they need to get a college education. It is outrageous that in striving to attain that very degree many of our students are forced into homelessness,” state Sen. Richard Roth, who co-authored another of the California bills aimed at helping homeless students, wrote in an email, adding that his proposed legislation “is a targeted intervention, a step in the right direction, in order for students’ focus to be where it needs to be—on their studies—rather than where they will sleep that night.”
In elementary and high school, students can get government support like free lunch programs or help finding ways into the foster care system, but after they graduate high school those resources dissipate. Many freshmen in college lean on the support of their families if they can, but not everyone can. Barries’ parents, for example, were both incarcerated, so when she left the foster care system at 18, she didn’t have anyone to fall back on.
Barries received financial aid during her first semester, but she lost it after her grades fell below Santa Rosa’s grade requirement. Merit requirements on assistance, she felt, only kept her stuck in a vicious cycle locked out from the possibility of upward mobility: Because she didn’t receive adequate financial aid, she had to pick up more hours at work and, in return, lost more hours to study.
“Once you get disqualified for financial aid, it’s really hard to get back into it,” Barries says. “They want you to prove you can come to school, have a 3.0. or a 2.0 or whatever their requirement is.”
For many homeless and housing insecure students, finding and taking advantage of the resources to alleviate their situation can prove debilitatingly burdensome in itself. “Those appointments take time, and when you’re homeless and living in a shelter,” says Eanes from first-hand experience, “imagine doing all those appointments and still having to go to school full time. It just wasn’t possible. They make things too hard.”
AT THE NATIONAL level, Democratic candidates for president are talking about college affordability: Education is the No. 2 issue for Democratic voters, according to a recent Pew study, and many of the party’s presidential primary contenders have responded with proposals to make higher education more accessible. But they aren’t all on the same page, and only a few address the specific problem of housing.
A few, like former Vice President Joe Biden and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, support free tuition for community colleges only, which some call a K-14 model because it would expand the current K-12 public education system by two years. Former San Antonio Mayor and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro recently unveiled an education plan that advocates for universal pre-K and the elimination of tuition at public universities and community colleges—a pre-K through 16 model, if you will.
Some, like Pete Buttigieg, don’t believe in free tuition. “Americans who have a college degree earn more than Americans who don’t,” the South Bend mayor said at Northeastern University in April. “As a progressive, I have a hard time getting my head around the idea of a majority who earn less because they didn’t go to college subsidizing a minority who earn more because they did.” Buttigieg instead points to expanding Pell Grants, urging states to cover more tuition costs, and more accessible loan forgiveness programs and potential interest rate changes when it comes to refinancing loans.
Only three proposals currently on the table address the issue of housing costs directly. Elizabeth Warren recently announced a sweeping plan that not only includes debt cancellation and free tuition for public four-year and community colleges, but would also invest $100 billion over the next 10 years in the federal Pell Grant, expand who is eligible for it and change the rules to allow community college students, like Eanes and Barries, to receive and spend more federal money on nontuition expenses like housing.
Warren’s plan is similar to an initiative she and fellow senators and presidential aspirants Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris have all signed on in support of their colleague Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz’s Debt-Free College Act, introduced in March, which would set up a federal-state partnership to help the neediest students pay their total cost of attendance, including housing.
Bernie Sanders, who more than any other 2016 candidate raised the problem of college costs and student debt, didn’t include housing in his call for “free tuition” — that is, until earlier this week. On Monday, he unveiled a new version of his free college proposal from four years ago that would not only eliminate tuition and fees at public colleges but require states to cover non-tuition expenses like housing for low-income students and provide federal incentives to offer similar support more broadly.
Multiple studies conclude that homelessness is emotionally traumatic, creating significant barriers to completing school work — an extra burden on students like Eanes who believe they have to get an education to get ahead and support themselves.
Eanes, who graduated last December with an associate degree, is now enrolled in a nursing program at Lehman College, a four-year college in the Bronx that’s part of the City University of New York. But she’s still homeless, living in a shelter in Manhattan with her children and commuting to classes.
“I wanted to have a higher paying job than just minimum wage, so in order to do that, I had to obtain some type of degree,” Eanes says. “There’s no other way to get a better job so that I could provide for my family.”
Original article published in Politico: https://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2019/06/25/homeless-students-community-colleges-000929