Challenges Homeless Students Face in Higher Education

For homeless youth, higher education is a way out and a way up. At the College of Education and Human Development (CEHD), we’re studying the challenges that homeless students face as they make the transition to college – and how our universities and institutions can better serve their needs.

Homeless Students, Unique Challenges

My interest in creating solutions for homeless youth started when I was studying at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. I was working with students from a variety of groups including students of color, immigrant students, undocumented students and students in foster care.

I began to focus on Los Angeles’ homeless student population, at the time estimated to be between 10,000 and 15,000 youth. To learn more about their experiences, I began work as an after-school tutor, working with homeless students in “Skid Row,” a 50-block area in downtown L.A. During my tutoring work, I worked with adolescent homeless students who were attending high school and attempting to make the transition to college.

How did they handle the application process? How could they afford it? Would they be able to get into student housing? I wanted the answers to these questions and, more importantly, help come up with solutions and support structures to help them navigate the transition to higher education.

Building Support Structures for Homeless Youth

With an estimated 4,000 high school students who live on the streets on any given night in Minnesota, it’s crucial we make sure they have access to higher education. At CEHD, I’ve studied higher education institutions in Minnesota and the surrounding area to find out what kinds of services and support systems they have dedicated to homeless youth.

We’ve evaluated institutions in several areas related to homeless students: financial aid, student services and how schools and colleges train their faculty to deal with these students’ unique challenges. We’re currently analyzing a study that follows up on a project we conducted 4 years ago. While we’ve seen progress, especially in our community college system, many of our four-year institutions still have a lot of room for improvement. This starts by understanding the challenges that homeless youth face, and how we need to support them.

The Challenges Facing Homeless Students in Higher Education

Family Trauma. Many homeless students, particularly those who have been living on their own, have experienced significant emotional trauma. They bring this history of conflict with them to college, and lack the familial support that most students rely on.

Financial aid. Obviously, homeless students lack the financial resources to pay for college. Because of their unstable living situation, applying for financial aid and scholarships is difficult. Most financial aid applications don’t identify them as any different than a student from a low-income home. If they are outside the foster care system, they must write a letter that verifies them as homeless. If they do navigate the process, many will struggle appropriately using their financial aid, lacking the money management skills that other students have learned.

Housing. Student housing can be a great resource, but many student housing systems are structured around the needs of conventional students. Dorms may be closed on holiday weekends or during the summer months – leaving homeless students without somewhere to go if they can’t re-enter the foster care or shelter system. This is a situation that can derail a student’s college career.

Lack of address and computer access. For homeless students, the college application process is complicated by a frequent lack of access to a computer and email and, often, a mailing address. Homeless students are resourceful, using public computers at libraries and arranging for application materials to be sent to a school administrator’s office if they don’t have a stable foster care situation. However, these challenges make the process more difficult, particularly the time limitations placed on the (often outdated) shared computers in libraries and group homes.

Peer relationships and social networks. Homeless students can feel alienated from their peers because the familial relationships that most students take for granted generate strong negative emotions in homeless youth. Holidays are difficult, as they watch their peers go to family gatherings. Even small things, like when other students complain about their parents checking in on them too often, serve to reinforce the feeling of being separate from their peers. Homeless youth often find it hard to trust others and tend to struggle to build social networks and to feel fully invested in the college experience – something research shows is crucial to student success.

Building Support Systems

While the challenges homeless students experience are real, we are making progress. We will continue to build bridges between social services and higher education to develop support systems that can help overcome these barriers.

The follow-up survey we’re conducting shows that we’re making progress. Our state’s community colleges have been particularly responsive to the needs of homeless students, setting up resource centers and even food pantries for students who are hungry. Many are employing certified social workers in their student services offices, to help homeless students find housing and make the transition to college. For example, the Minneapolis Community & Technical College has a staff member who acts as a liaison to local shelters. A lot of our four-year colleges and universities could learn from their example.

I’ll continue to study the experience of homeless students and push for improvements on issues like year-round student housing and better training for teachers and faculty. I’m working with Homeless District Liaisons across the state to learn how we might apply some of the lessons we’ve learned on the K-12 level to higher education. By pulling together the best resources of our public and private educational institutions with the expertise of socials services and funding from nonprofit and philanthropic organizations around the country, we can make a difference. The future of our homeless youth depends on it.

Jarrett Gupton, Ph.D.

About the Author

Jarrett Gupton, Ph.D.

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