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A young man in a red hoodie carries moving boxes into an empty apartment

Community college students facing homelessness in Tacoma, Washington were supported by a partnership led by their college and the local housing authority, boosting retention among participants.

Dobrila Vignjevic/E+/Getty Images

Financial constraints are a primary barrier to student persistence, and a lack of permanent or stable housing can cause students to stop out. Nationally, 8 percent of undergraduate students experience homelessness and students who attend community colleges often face additional challenges, as these students are more likely to be parents, low-income and attending nonresidential campuses.

A recent study by Education Northwest evaluated a housing voucher program supporting students at Tacoma Community College in Washington and the effects of the program on students’ overall well-being and academic success.

Overall, the program most benefited students who were able to overcome challenges and find housing placements—and these learners had higher graduation rates compared to their peers. Additionally, any student who participated in the program had less basic-needs insecurity in the following academic term, which researchers attribute to increased communication and visibility of services due to the program.

The program: The College Housing Assistance Program (CHAP) was created by Tacoma Community College and the Tacoma Housing Authority in 2014 as a way to address housing insecurity among college students in the area and the program was later expanded to include students who transfer to the University of Washington, Tacoma.

To be eligible, students had to be enrolled in TCC—or later UW Tacoma—and completing at least six credits, as well as prove that they were homeless (living in an emergency shelter or transitional housing facility) or near-homeless (unable to meet basic housing expenses, couch surfing, victim of domestic violence, etc.).

Students also provided proof of residency in the state, completed a background check and confirmed their income level, meeting state funding requirements.

After filling out an application, students received support navigating intake and next steps in the process from the college, and the housing authority provided a voucher to subsize rent for a private market apartment. On average, students received a $450 discount on $1,000 rent using the voucher.

The outcomes: The study followed 422 students who entered the program from fall 2017 to spring 2019 and upon the program’s conclusion in spring 2022, using survey data, data from the Tacoma Housing Authority, the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, and TCC.

Students were identified in two groups, homeless and near homeless, and compared against their peers of nonparticipants. The most frequent causes of housing insecurity were being new to the area, experiencing a family crisis, loss of income or medical expenses.

Only one in four students who were admitted to the program used a voucher, which researchers attribute to challenges in completing paperwork, identifying suitable housing and providing up-front costs to secure a lease (such as a deposit or funds for utilities). In 2019, TCC established a fund exclusively to help students pay their security deposits to address this obstacle.

Among the positive outcomes for students who used their vouchers were higher graduation rates, increased employment, higher levels of food security and greater financial security.

Two-thirds of students completed a credential, transferred to a university or remained enrolled and on track to a degree.

Housing Solutions

Housing community college students remains a challenge for higher ed institutions across the country. Here are a few other initiatives that have benefited student success and address basic needs insecurity.

  • LaGuardia Community College partnered with Airbnb to offer short-term housing for students experiencing homelessness. Students could rent an apartment costing up to $1,700 a month for a semester with Airbnb directly, with funds provided by Airbnb.
  • Fort Lewis College partnered with local nonprofits and community members to provide free rapid housing assistance for students who need it, then transitioning them to stable or permanent housing.
  • Columbus State Community College has a tiered housing support program providing short- and long-term support for housing insecure students alongside nonprofit partners.

Homeless students who did secure housing had a 43 percent graduation rate, compared to 28 percent of those who did not find housing, and those who were near homeless and got a lease had a 57 percent graduation rate, compared to 45 percent of their peers. The national average three-year completion rate for community college students is 35 percent.

Researchers did note there was a chance some students remained at TCC to keep their housing voucher rather than graduating or transferring.

Even among students who did not secure housing, program participation increased their level of food security and utilization of public assistance programs, highlighting the need to make students aware of offerings available to them at their institution and in their community.

So what? Based on the success of the program, Tacoma Community College hopes to provide a model for other community colleges but also glean insight for future programs it offers, TCC president Ivan Harrell said in an April 30 webinar hosted by Education Northwest.

“The work of addressing housing insecurity for community college students is difficult and complicated work, but it is extremely necessary. The nuances of developing this type of program was so much more intricate than any other type of support program than I have been a part of,” Harrell said. “We learned lots and lots of lessons that are going to inform our continued work in this space.”

A few of the key lessons Tacoma Community College took away from CHAP:

  • Flexible funding. CHAP required several forms and pieces of documentation to meet state requirements and the college hopes to identify a different source of funding to decrease barriers of entry, Harrell said.
  • Staffing. The college only designated one staff member to work on CHAP part-time initially, which expanded to 2.5 FTEs by the program’s conclusion, with continued need for additional support. Identifying staff members who are able to provide holistic and comprehensive support to effectively care for students was crucial, as well.
  • Partnerships. Most community colleges don’t have the funding to develop comprehensive programs to address housing, so leaders should identify community and other partners to join in.
  • Delineating roles. Each partner in the program must be aware of what areas of concerns they’re supporting students in so there is no gap in service or support for the learner. Providing housing is a complicated process and TCC wasn’t always prepared to address some of the external issues students faced, so sharing responsibilities between the groups was key.

TCC is exploring future alternative housing options including building pods, establishing a residence hall, creating an on-campus tiny home village or partnering with a new housing facility being built near campus for affordable solutions.

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