Poverty On College Campuses
From homelessness to food insecurity, college students are increasingly becoming the hidden face of poverty
Most college students count the days until school breaks, racing through finals to head home for the holidays or a long summer in their childhood bedroom. But for Jeffrey Williams, 22, the breaks were the worst.
“There were days when I would be in my car, like,‘Where am I gonna go?’ I would rotate houses, spending three days with one of my best friends, a couple days with a cousin. It was frustrating and depressing, but I would usually find some help, some cover and a couch or floor to sleep on,” says Williams, who is now a graduating senior at Wayne State University in Detroit, Michigan.
Two weeks before his 18th birthday, he returned to the home where he had lived since the age of 10 to find his bags in the garage.
“My adoptive mom had said, ‘When you turn 18, it’s time for you to go,’ so they could get the next kid in there to take up that space. So I was expecting it, but I didn’t really believe it. Then it got real,” Williams says.
He packed his belongings into his ’93 Cavalier and headed to his biological grandfather’s home, where he quietly claimed the couch each night, afraid to explain that he had nowhere else to go. After days of back and forth trying to get financial aid—a nearly impossible feat without his parents’ help—he reluctantly disclosed his homelessness. One heartfelt letter explaining his circumstance and a couple weeks later, he had secured loans without his parents' financial information, and was able to move into the freshman dorm.
“The only way I made it is by the grace of God,” he says.
He has spent his entire college career in limbo, attending school full time, playing football (he made the All-Academic Team every year), working two jobs at a time, and couch surfing whenever the dorms closed. At one point, rather than stay at a dorm where he would be kicked out during breaks, he used his loan money to rent a bed bug-infested studio apartment in a neighborhood where he had to carry a knife each time he walked to his car, but the rent was too much to handle on his own, and last semester he moved into the basement at his dad’s girlfriend’s house.
Williams’s story is one that is becoming increasingly common on the campuses of community colleges and four-year universities alike. For the 2010-2011 school year, the latest for which full-year data is currently available, 33,039 students admitted on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid that they were homeless. Experts think the real number is much higher.
“Many students who experience homelessness do not disclose their situation, because they are embarrassed and afraid,” says Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY).
And, because African Americans are disproportionately represented among the homeless in this country—making up 37 of all homeless living in shelters, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration—it’s likely that we are well represented amongst the college homeless, too. Add to that the fact that homelessness amongst college students doesn’t fit the stereotypes most people subscribe to—substitute visions of sleeping in church doorways with constant couch surfing and bedding down in back seats during winter break when the dorms are closed—and you have a nearly invisible scourge that is making it difficult for our youth to get the education they need to get ahead.
This is just another way that poverty impacts the youngest among us, as unemployment for blacks ages 16 to 24 remains high, at 28.6 percent, versus 14.9 for their white counterparts (general population unemployment rate is 7.8 percent for the general population and 14 percent for blacks).
“People assume that to go to college, you must have the resources to do so, and therefore poverty is less of an issue," Duffield explains. "There is an expectation that basic needs like food and shelter trump long-term concerns like educational attainment, and that anyone who cannot meet their basic needs would not be in a position to pursue higher education. But education for homeless youth is the best long-term strategy to avoid poverty and homelessness as adults. These dedicated students are suffering now, in hopes of creating a more secure later."
Homelessness isn’t the only way poverty manifests on college campuses. Food insecurity is also on the rise, with financial aid not providing enough cash to keep students' stomachs full. This isn’t eating Ramen noodles at 3:00 a.m. because the cafeteria is closed and you’ve been up studying for hours; there are thousands of students who can’t afford comprehensive meal plans and aren’t sure where their next meal will come from. That hunger does more than make stomachs grumble; it’s been linked to poor test scores and increased absenteeism, making getting through school even more difficult.
Still, there are solutions. The College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007, combined with the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, makes it easier for schools to identify homeless students and those who are at high risk for homelessness, so they can provide necessary resources to help them make it through school. The National Center for Homeless Education’s website has resources to help young people living in poverty to fund their education and lives outside of school. National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth's LeTendre Education Fund provides college scholarships specifically for homeless or formerly homeless students who are graduating from high school. The Horatio Alger Association and Give Us Your Poor work together to award thousands of scholarships to students who want to attend college, despite living in poverty.
When it comes to food insecurity, schools across the country have been creating campus food pantries where students can get bag lunches and non-perishables, often anonymously. Michigan State University created what’s believed to be the first student-run pantry in 1993, and the school has helped students and administrators at other schools create their own versions of their program. UCLA and Auburn University have also created food pantries for hungry students.
[ALSO READ: Almost 30 Percent of Blacks in Poverty]
Of course there’s more work to be done.
“Schools should work with community agencies, so that they may make appropriate referrals for services," Duffield says. "It is also important to offer services on campus, such as clothing banks, food banks, and counseling. Helping students find housing during academic breaks, including opening up dormitories, is also critical. Establishing a single point of contact to assist students experiencing homelessness is a great strategy to offer support and guidance. And financial aid policies need to be revised to remove barriers to students who are homeless, and completely on their own. Better training about the unique needs of homeless students for financial aid offices, college access programs, and student support services is also needed.”
Tavis Smiley is continuing his crusade against the poverty that leads to unsupported students with the Vision for a New America: A Future Without Poverty symposium, which will be held next Thursday, January 17, at George Washington University. He has called on President Obama to convene a White House Conference on the Eradication of Poverty in America as the first official act of his second term.
“If poverty can be made a national priority, together we can create a plan to cut poverty in half in 10 years, and move closer to eradicating it in the richest nation in the world. This is not a skill problem; this is a will problem,” said Smiley in a press release for the program, which will be simulcast live on C-SPAN.
You can help, too. “Contact local homeless service organizations, as well as school district homeless liaisons, to ask where the greatest gaps lie—it might be in donations of food, clothing or gift cards,” Duffield advises.
And reach out to organizations in your area that are dedicated to helping impoverished students, like the College Success Foundation, which offers opportunities to donate to scholarships, volunteer in academic enrichment programs, mentor individual students and provide internships and jobs to struggling students.
These days, Williams is working an unpaid internship at a PBS affiliate and praying that he’ll find a job shooting and editing film after he claims his hard-won diploma in May. He is studying media arts, and dreams of working for the NFL Network after he graduates.
“I need to find something I love. I’ve been in poverty for too long,” he says. “My diploma is the thing that will sustain me in the future, so I won’t be going through this same stuff for the rest of my life.”
Did you know poverty was a problem on college campuses? Tell us in the comments.