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The image of a first-year college student moving into a cozy dorm room, meeting their first roommate and putting up a music poster or two is a mainstay of our collective imagination. Increasingly, though, this image has been complicated by stories of students who arrive to campus worried not about decorating, but about where, exactly, they’ll be sleeping. More than 10 percent of college students now experience housing insecurity at some point in their college careers, with nonresidential and community colleges being especially likely to welcome those who don’t have a place to go at night. These unhoused students come from varied backgrounds—they are young people who have severed ties with their families, middle-aged parents who can’t afford rent, immigrants and the working poor. But what they have in common is that in the midst of their struggles to become housed, they see in college the promise of a better life.
Whether colleges will ultimately make good on that promise depends on how they address this influx of homeless students. As a philosopher studying housing justice, I’ve come to see homelessness as a special sort of social ill, demanding responses different from those appropriate to injustices like structural racism or misogyny. While colleges have sought to lift up many marginalized populations by making campus life more equitable and inclusive, such attempts to get our own house in order are inadequate to address the type of marginalization that unhoused students experience. For the main problem is not that institutions of higher learning aren’t made for homeless students, but, rather, that homelessness itself is inimical to learning. And so if higher ed is to take seriously the issue of homeless students, it will have to set its sights outside the academy itself.
When an institution is blind to, out of sync with, or hostile to the aims of a person who belongs to it, philosophers will sometimes say that the person is alienated. This is a useful concept for understanding a college’s task in enrolling student populations that are more diverse. For as the academy has admitted increasing numbers of female, LGBTQ+, Black, brown and international students, colleges have become more attentive to the needs and priorities particular to these groups. Equity and inclusion training, mentoring opportunities, diverse course offerings, offices trained to address international student concerns—these are all attempts to ensure that institutions will begin working for those traditionally excluded from them.
Unhoused students are similar to other marginalized groups in an important sense: they too are liable to experience college as alienating. In fact, from the very beginning the alienation can be relentless. A student named Jackie, for instance, hid her homelessness from her peers, worrying that it would socially isolate her. This meant that rather than simply being opportunities to connect with new people, parties and campus events were spent concealing the ugly fact of her living situation while also trying to find a couch to sleep on. Social events simply did not function for her in the way they did for others.
Those living in student housing can count on being able to wake up near their 8 a.m. class, to shower in an accessible bathroom and to stop at the dining hall on the way to lecture. For such students, the very geography of campus facilitates academic success. But the student who is unhoused is likely to have a very different experience. One night they might wake up in an acquaintance’s unfamiliar apartment. On another they might stay with a relative 90 miles away. On another they might wake up in their car in a public parking lot. Like the other students, this person will try to get to class by 8 a.m., fed and showered, ready to learn. But unlike for other students, everything will be working against them in their effort to succeed. It’s no wonder, then, that unhoused students tend to struggle academically.
For that 8 a.m. class, any student will need a backpack, notebook, pens, calculator and acceptable clothes—things unhoused students often report being unable to afford. The unhoused student, despite lacking access to reliable Wi-Fi, will be given homework assignments requiring the internet. If they approach a professor about this challenge, they are likely to be instructed to use the library for online access, despite the library’s limited hours. Maybe they will try to do assignments from a campus parking lot. One study emphasized the burden on homeless students of trying to succeed without the supplies and technology that everyone else takes for granted. “It’s a horrible stereotype that, ‘Oh, you’re homeless—you must be a bad student,’” said one liaison who works with homeless students. The students are often talented, they insisted. But to expect students to thrive under such conditions is both unrealistic and unreasonable.
Homeless students, then, find themselves swimming against a riptide. But colleges have taken steps to address this. They have, for instance, worked to identify those students who are housing insecure and to reach out to them regularly. They have designated liaisons, whose job it is to help unhoused students navigate financial aid paperwork, and they’ve become more diligent about ensuring that they are well trained. Some colleges are even allowing students to sleep on campus in parked cars if they have nowhere else to go.
These are important stopgap measures, vital for shepherding students without housing through institutions that are difficult to navigate. But they are also limited in a crucial respect. This is because no matter how many efforts are made to be more welcoming to unhoused students, to reach out to them, to integrate them into the community and to find them a parking space for the night, it will still be the case that homelessness per se is antithetical to academic success. Even if you have a liaison to help you with financial aid forms, and even if you’re put in contact with supportive students who are also unhoused, this is just never going to compensate for having to figure out where to sleep when you should be worried about tomorrow’s exam.
We thus need to be clear that the ideal—the ultimate goal—is not a college that has a vibrant community of unhoused students, as is the case with students of color or LGBTQ+ students. This is because, ideally, colleges would have no homeless students because, ideally, there would be no homelessness.
This may seem like an obvious point, but it has serious implications. It implies that rather than merely providing support for unhoused students once they arrive on campus—something they’re used to doing with other marginalized populations—institutions of higher learning need to address conditions that lead to student homelessness in the first place.
Of course, one might doubt whether colleges are really in a position to affect a problem so large as homelessness. But higher ed has, in fact, gotten into the lobbying game when students’ well-being has been at stake. And though it has not tended to do much lobbying with regard to housing, higher ed could, for instance, lobby Congress to make it easier for college students to obtain Section 8 housing vouchers. At this point, the vouchers aren’t available to many college students under age 24, making it difficult for traditional-age students to utilize the program, while colleges have a vested interest in students being able to participate.
But a voucher isn’t worth much if there are no homes to rent. This leads us to the most important step colleges could take, which would be to ramp up efforts to make housing affordable in the municipalities where they’re located. We know that a lack of affordable housing is the major driver of homelessness. We know that college students facing homelessness often attend institutions where the cost of housing is high. We know that property owners are wont to defend the value of their homes by using their political power to prevent needed development. All this together suggests that at the end of the day, what’s needed is for colleges to take up the mantle for housing affordability, pushing for zoning and permitting reforms—reforms that will make building easier. Though it will likely create friction with some local residents, colleges are members of the communities where they are located and have every right to weigh in on how public space should be used.
Colleges getting involved in the politics of local land use is nothing new, and there are even some recent cases of a university setting its sights on affordable housing. But my suggestion is that leaning into this, and not the addition of new administrative offices and support staff, is what the upswing in homeless students calls for. If higher ed really is to make good on its promise to provide students with a better life, it can’t content itself with students lacking shelter and all that comes with it—social space, a shower, a place to rest, a desk, internet. And if higher ed is not going to content itself with students lacking shelter, then colleges are going to need to work to change the world that keeps sending them unhoused students.