Colleges Struggle to Meet the Needs of Students With Unstable Housing Background

A person sits on the floor against a wall with a backpack next to them.

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Key Takeaways

  • Experiencing foster care or homelessness as a youth can make affording and completing higher education more difficult.
  • A recent study found that students had to work long hours and live in their cars during breaks, among other issues.
  • Experts express the need for on-campus employees specifically focused on helping with students navigate these problems.

The level of familial and financial stability a person experiences can have a ripple effect that goes well into adulthood. One area of impact, in particular, is the ability to pursue further schooling successfully. A recent study from the Journal of Adolescent Research (JAR) found that experiencing foster care or homelessness as a youth creates immense barriers to affording and completing higher education.

Over the course of an academic year, researchers conducted three in-depth interviews with 27 students aged 18 to 29 at four-year colleges who had experienced foster care, homelessness, or both.

Of those participating, 88.9% had experienced homelessness at least once since age 14, and 40.7% had been in foster care.

The majority of people were female (66%) and Black (77.8%). Among the issues reported were a need to work long hours and a lack of housing during school breaks.

“Foster care and homelessness are the result of compounding vulnerability and marginalization that leave children unlikely to attend higher education. They encounter significant barriers caused by a range of social determinants and structural issues,” says Lisa Chung Bender, an Education Specialist at UNICEF.

“Critical mentoring, advising and encouragement most often provided by adult family members is frequently absent.”

Barriers To Higher Education

There are many steep barriers people who have experienced homelessness or foster care face to higher education. In 2019, about 673,000 youth spent time in foster care in the United States.

As of 2014, 20% of foster youth who graduated high school attended college, but less than 10% finished their bachelor’s degree. In addition, each year, an estimated 4.2 million youth and young adults experience homelessness, and about 700,000 of them are unaccompanied minors.

Here are some of the barriers to higher education they can face.

Choppy Prior Schooling and Preparation 

People in foster care face regular disruptions to their education before even reaching higher-education age. “Home placements for foster youth can change frequently and abruptly, meaning that a foster youth typically attends four different schools between grades nine and 12, all while juggling family reunification efforts, mental health counseling, and other services mandated by the county,” says Marie-Christine Busque, LCSW, the Vice-President of Programming at Pivotal, an organization providing coaching, enrichment programs, access to scholarships and other critical resources to students in and from foster care. 

Lisa Chung Bender

Foster care and homelessness are the result of compounding vulnerability and marginalization that leave children unlikely to attend higher education.

— Lisa Chung Bender

People in this situation may also have less knowledge about the process for applying to schools and financial aid or scholarships. Even after applying for aid, unaccompanied homeless youth are often denied financial aid due to administrators not considering them independents, says Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, an organization working to overcome homelessness through education. However, the National Center for Homeless Education clearly states they “do not need to report their parents' financial and other information on the FAFSA.”

Emotional Distress

Experiencing homelessness or foster care can have immense consequences on a person’s mental health. A 2019 review reported that up to 80% of people in foster care have significant mental health issues. The rate of related conditions is also much higher for adults previously in foster care. For example, 21.5% of people previously in foster care have PTSD, compared to 4.5% of the general population, and 11.4% have a panic disorder, compared to 3.6% of the general population.

As for homeless youth, 69% also report having mental health problems.

Sixteen of the JAR study’s participants reported not having formal caregivers in high school due to issues such as abuse, abandonment, and the death of a parent.

“It is critical to keep in mind that foster care is a result of abuse and or neglect, and thus we assume, despite incredible resilience amongst youth, many will still face ongoing social-emotional distress or health issues, which can be an added hardship to higher education success,” says Bender.

Need To Work 

In the first study interview, 14 people were employed, working an average of 22 hours a week—though some reported up to 40 hours a week. “I don’t think it’s understood as much as it should be, how hard it is for students to go to school full time and work full time,” said one participant. “I get off work at one in the morning, and turn around and have classes at eight. When I get off work I have to do homework. Yeah, we come to school really tired and I think they should understand why.”

Barbara Duffield

Institutions should have plans to address housing, food, health, and mental health needs during the school year and during academic breaks.

— Barbara Duffield

Beyond the understandable tiredness, working to pay for college can create added stress and limit opportunities to excel or enjoy oneself, as well as deter people from spending working hours pursuing a degree. “These youth face a greater opportunity cost to study as it decreases availability to work,” says Bender. “Working can also limit opportunities to collaborate with peers, access academic support services or engage in enrichment activities.”

Lack of Housing When School Is Out of Session 

Not everyone has a place to go when the dorms close. “There are also a number of practical constraints that create significant barriers to higher education, such as lack of a residence during summer and academic breaks—for those students living on campus—[and an] inability to store possessions,” says Bender.

Eleven participants have experienced homelessness at least once since beginning higher education, and four have lived in their cars for several weeks to months.

A 2019 report of 167,000 students across 227 two and four-year schools reported that 46% of participants were housing insecure and 17% were homeless in the past year.

In some cases, these instances of homelessness came due to breaks from school. One student lived in his car for two months because he didn’t receive summer funding, and his family was estranged after he came out as gay. “I really didn’t want anyone seeing me. I had to do things like piss in a Gatorade bottle,” he says.

Policy and Social Changes

Bender emphasizes the need for changes prior to even beginning the application process. “While youth are in high school, much more can be done to advise, coach, and mentor these students,” she says.

Once at college, “targeted programs should be accessible to support student success, particularly those receiving public funds. Youth should also be able to access more funding for living and academic expenses beyond tuition, room, and board,” she adds.

Duffield stresses the importance of each institution having a dedicated position to support students coming from homelessness or foster care. “Institutions should have plans to address housing, food, health, and mental health needs during the school year and during academic breaks; review and revise any policies that may disproportionately penalize homeless and foster youth—including satisfactory academic progress policies—and offer supplemental academic assistance,” she says.

On a larger scale, federal policy changes and increased funding can help create an easier path for students to afford and complete higher education. For example, current legislation includes the Fostering Postsecondary Success for Foster and Homeless Youth Act of 2021.

What This Means For You

Change at a younger and college level is necessary to not only make college an option but decrease homelessness and instances of foster care. "There is the notion that ‘housing ends homelessness.’ But this is an empty slogan if youth do not have the ability to maintain and sustain housing, and have the support they need to achieve financial stability," says Duffield.

"In today’s economy, that means some form of education beyond high school. At the same time, the unique needs of homeless and foster youth can be overlooked in the ‘basic needs movement’ in higher education. These young people need all sectors to come together to support their dreams and aspirations, including their higher education dreams.”


1 Source
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  1. Skobba K, Moorman D, Meyers D. The cost of early independence: unmet material needs among college students with homelessness or foster care histories. J Adolesc Res. Published online May 20, 2021. doi:10.1177/07435584211014831