Featured Experts
Cyekeia Lee
Cyekeia Lee Director of Higher Education Initiatives, NAEHCY View bio
Sara Goldrick-Rab
Sara Goldrick-Rab Founding Director, Wisconsin HOPE Lab View bio

This guide was written by

MoneyGeek Staff

College poses unique challenges, but for low-income or homeless students, making it through can require Herculean effort. The relative wealth of college students’ families remains a strong predictor of matriculation, and though college completion rates have increased across the board in recent decades, the rate for students from low income households is lower than that of high income students.

1/2 of all community college students struggle with food or housing insecurity.

For homeless youth, there are many barriers to academic success and degree completion. In addition to family homelessness, 1.6 to 1.7 million youth experience homelessness on their own each year, without being accompanied by a parent (called UHY or Unaccompanied Homeless Youth). The highly stressful experience of poverty often accompanying homelessness frequently hinders academic focus and achievement. Homeless youth are also less likely to have educational role models and mentors in their lives who help to encourage their academic interests and life aspirations.

According to a 2015 study from the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, half of all community college students struggle with food or housing insecurity. 20 percent of these students deal with acute hunger and 13 percent with homelessness.

The study found that a huge number of the students most in need of basic resources are not asking for them. This resource guide addresses that very issue: where to find assistance, on and off campus, and how to ask for it.

Navigating the Essential Costs

Tuition is often a major obstacle to low-income students, but it is not the only significant cost. Housing, meals, transportation, textbooks and school supplies, and health care also must be managed. Fortunately, there are myriad resources available to defray costs for low-income students.


Tuition remains the college cost that can most deter low-income students from applying and remaining enrolled. Since 2000, average tuition has increased by almost 50 percent at four-year private institutions and two-year public institutions, while almost doubling at four-year public institutions. Tuition at private four-year institutions now averages $34,483 per year, while public four-year institutions average $15,022 per year. Financing this costs is onerous for any prospective college student, but presents a difficult challenge to homeless and low-income students.

The major resources available for coping with these costs include scholarships, federal aid and federal student loans.


Many types of institutions grant scholarships based on a variety of criteria. Most scholarships are merit-based, in recognition of outstanding achievements, or need-based, on the basis of financial need if certain minimum criteria of academic achievement are met.

The types of institutions awarding scholarships include the following:

Individual academic institutions

Most four-year schools offer merit-based and need-based financial aid. The types of scholarships available are typically listed on the institution’s admissions page, which may also link to third-party resources. This page on Affordability and Financial Aid at the University of California Los Angeles, for instance, describes the scholarships offered by the university and provides links to other scholarship databases.

Organizations and Nonprofits

Some organizations offer scholarships to students based on specific criteria, including demographics: socio-economic status, gender, race, academic achievements, extracurricular activities, and prospective fields of study.

Finding the Right Scholarship

A partial list of scholarship programs that serve low-income and homeless youth includes:

Dell Scholars Program

The Dell Scholars Program provides $20,000 to winners over the course of six years, in addition to tutoring, networking and technology resources. The scholarships are awarded based on financial need and at-risk status.

Gates Millennium Scholars

GMS provides scholarships for low-income, minority students. The 1000 annual scholarships may be awarded to African American, Hispanic, Native American, native Alaskans and Pacific Islanders and offer a full ride.

Horatio Alger Association

This provides up to $22,000 in scholarship funds to students who demonstrate critical financial need and who have “faced and overcome great obstacles in their young lives.”

National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY)

A minimum of two $2,000 scholarships are awarded annually to students who are currently struggling with or have experienced homelessness in the past. Scholarships may be put toward tuition, fees, books and prep courses.

Federal Aid

The federal government provides financial aid via grants and loans. Grants do not have to be repaid, but typically don’t cover the entire cost of college attendance. Federal loans, on the other hand, must be repaid, but have low-interest rates. A comprehensive source for information is the Federal Student Aid website.

Applications for both federal grants and federal loans are made through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The information on your FAFSA is transmitted to schools you choose, who use the information to assess your need for student aid. MoneyGeek provides an extensive FAFSA Guide to help students understand the requirements of the application process. College Goal Sunday is an organization that hosts FAFSA completion events.

UHY and the FAFSA

If you are a UHY student, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act allows your financial aid to be calculated on your own income, not your parents’ and you don’t need a parent signature on your FAFSA.

To be designated UHY (Unaccompanied Homeless Youth), you need verification from advocates who have worked with the you and witnessed your circumstances including:
  • School district or high school McKinney-Vento liaison (ask your guidance counselor for help)
  • Director or designee of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program
  • Director or designee of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program
  • Financial aid administrators

Details are outlined in this NAEHCY pdf.

When you fill out the FAFSA as a UHY:
  • Mark on the form that you belong to the “special circumstances” category and cannot provide your parents’ information.
  • For the number of members in household on the FAFSA, include only yourself (Household = 1)
  • Follow up with schools’ financial aid offices to determine if any additional documentation or information is needed.
Some additional documentation could include:
  • Personal statement describing the situation
  • Applicable court or legal documentation
  • Letters from teachers, social workers, counselors or clergy members

UHY under age 22 are considered independent and may fill out the forms without parental information. It is important to note that students are not considered automatically independent until they reach the age of 24, and a dependency status appeal must be made each year until that time. Both UHY and low-Income students need to be aware that FAFSA money comes in 10 days before the semester starts at the earliest, and it could be weeks into the semester, depending on how late in the process they filed.

Federal Grants
Pell Grants
  • A Federal Pell Grant, unlike a loan, does not have to be repaid.
  • The maximum Pell Grant for the 2016–17 award year (July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2017) is $5,815.
  • The amount depends on your financial need, costs to attend school, status as a full-time or part-time student, and plans to attend school for a full academic year or less.
  • If you’re eligible for a Federal Pell Grant, you’ll receive the full amount you qualify for.
  • The amount of other student aid you receive does not affect the amount of your Pell Grant. 
  • Your school can apply Pell Grant funds to your school costs, pay you directly, or combine these methods.

Extensive information on Pell Grants can be found at on this Department of Education webpage.

Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG):

These grants provide supplemental aid, administered directly by participating schools, in addition to Pell Grants awards made by the federal government. They range from $100 to $4000 but schools receive limited funds and not every qualifying student will receive an FSEOG. Not every school participates. Students receiving Pell Grants are first in line.

Because of the limited FSEOG funds available at any school, apply for federal student aid as early as you can. A school’s deadline can be found on its website or by asking someone in its financial aid office.

Federal Student Loans

The federal government offers two classes of low-interest loans for students: Direct Loans (also known as Stafford Loans) and Perkins Loans.

Direct Loans

Direct Loans are generally awarded as part of a larger award packages provided by the schools, which also include federal grants and institutional scholarships.

The Direct Loan Program offers the following types of loans:


for students with demonstrated financial need, as determined by federal regulations. No interest is charged while a student is in school at least half-time, during the grace period, and during deferment periods.


not based on financial need; interest is charged during all periods, even during the time a student is in school and during grace and deferment periods.


unsubsidized loans for the parents of dependent students and for graduate/professional students. PLUS loans help pay for education expenses up to the cost of attendance minus all other financial assistance. Interest is charged during all periods.


Eligible federal student loans can be combined into one Direct Consolidation Loan.

Your school will tell you how much you may borrow and the types of loans you are eligible to receive. The school will notify you of the loan amounts that it is offering, usually in an award letter that lists all of your proposed financial aid awards (your award package).

Evaluate the aid offer carefully. For loans, keep in mind that whatever amount you borrow must be paid back with interest. You can decline the loan or request a lower loan amount. The award letter will tell you how to do this.

Perkins Loans

The Federal Perkins Loan Program provides low-interest loans of up to $5,500 per undergraduate year through a revolving Perkins loan fund at each of the 1,700 participating institutions. The school is the lender for this loan, not the government, so you will repay them. In addition to completing the FAFSA, students also will need to complete a Perkins promissory note.


Residential Life Offices

When looking for housing options on-campus or off, talk with your school’s Residential Life Office. The counselors are there to help you and are familiar with school and community resources. Some schools, such as Kennesaw State University, have year-round housing (including over holidays when dorms are normally closed) for homeless and at-risk students. This university also has a center that provides emergency housing, toiletries, food, and clothing. Even if your school does not have an established program, talk with the staff to find out how they can help you.

Off-Campus Housing Resources
Questions Low-Income Students and UHY Should Ask About Housing:
What are the options outside traditional on-campus or off-campus housing?

The Residential Life Office at your school is most likely to know what economical options are actually available in the local community.

What are trade-offs between cost, comfort, convenience, and safety?

Evaluate how much proximity to campus, comfort of the living space, and your feeling of safety in the neighborhood matter to you in comparison to the cost of rent. Consider that the most stable, quiet home environment may be the best platform for your education.

What are popular neighborhoods/apartment complexes/areas for students to live?

There are often well-established off-campus areas where students cluster. Landlords there are used to dealing with students and often have multiple properties available, so if one type of living arrangement is too expensive, they can often show you other options.

What should I do if I have no credit or limited credit?

Ask your Residential Life office about how to handle landlords who give you guff about this: being a student with no credit or limited credit is not unusual. There may be opportunities to prove your reliability without a credit score or co-signer, otherwise subletting can be a good option.

What services am I generally responsible for providing, and what do these typically cost?

These will likely include utilities like gas, electricity, water, and internet service. Residential Life offices can estimate what students pay for these services.

Local Shelters

Many cities offer resource centers where homeless youth can make reservations for a one-night or seven-night stay. In most cases, these services are offered on a first-come-first-serve basis, but are available with no questions asked.

UHY can also take advantage of full-service youth shelters specifically for young adults. Services will vary, but may include computer labs, kitchen and dining areas, laundry facilities, bathrooms, and assistive programs to help young adults build a more stable life.


Although your school’s Residential Life Office can likely provide the most relevant shelter recommendations, other online resources include:

  • ShelterListings

    A comprehensive, state-by-state masterlist of shelters and supportive housing.

  • The TeenProject Shelter Finder

    This organization aids teenagers aging out of the foster system by providing opportunities for higher education and independent living.

  • Resources for Homeless Youth – HUD Exchange

    The U.S. Department of Housing & Urban Development offers resources, pertinent links and publications as part of its Special Needs Assistance Programs (SNAP).

Public Housing

You may have heard the term “public housing” used to describe housing with rents partially subsidized by government. There are two types of subsidized housing: Section 8 housing, and the more formally defined Public Housing. Students enrolled at institutions of higher education, however, are not eligible for Section 8 housing.

Call your Local Housing Authority

Public housing is available to low-income individuals and families and students are allowed. Information on eligibility and the housing application process can be found on HUD’s website and applications are issued through your local housing authority.

Qualify for a Federal Foster Program

Through the Fostering Connection to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, various federal programs offer financial support and foster care to young adults, including the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, which serves young adults ages 18-21 who have aged out of the foster care system. Though not necessarily targeted to college students in need of housing, this can still be a helpful option.

Sign up for School-Sponsored Community Service Trips and Study Abroad

During winter and summer breaks, many schools offer enrichment opportunities for students, including service trips and study abroad grants that include housing. Some trips may be free, while others will have a fee. These opportunities also allow you to give back and gain valuable skills through meaningful community work. Contact the Student Life and Study Abroad offices at your school.

Apply for a Resident Assistant Position

Many schools run summer programs for children, prospective students, and alumni, all of whom require housing on-campus. Schools employ current students as Resident Assistants as resources for these guests, providing them housing as a part of the RA employment package.

Check out Greek Housing

Many colleges allow Greek housing to remain open to students during summer break (but are usually closed during winter). Homeless students who are part of a fraternity or sorority should find out if their house will be open during summer, if there are any restrictions, and if there is a fee to stay.

Stay With Friends

Some homeless students opt to stay with friends who do not go home during the break. If a student has multiple friends who will be staying in the area, he or she can set up a plan with friends to rotate visits, if staying with one friend the whole break is not feasible. It may also be possible to go home with a friend over break.


Dining Services

Contact campus dining services about options for free and low-cost meals at school. Dining services may maintain a list of local food banks and programs offering living essentials, including daily meals. Dining services can also inform you about on-campus food assistance programs, such as Campus Kitchens, student food banks, and meal plan voucher programs.

Campus Kitchens Project

The Campus Kitchens Project provides access to meals from surplus on-campus and community food sources, in exchange for volunteering. Website resources help students develop campus kitchens in their neighborhoods – so if your school is not one of the 49 current locations of a Campus Kitchen, you can take the initiative in creating one.

Student Food Banks

Student food banks are similar to the Campus Kitchens project, but focus specifically on providing for university students facing food insecurity. Student food banks collect donations locally and provide information about other options for free or discounted local food, and organize events to raise funds for the food bank. Examples include the Michigan State University Food Bank and the Associated Students Food Bank at the University of California Santa Barbara. Their websites provide a wealth of information about their conception and operation, providing models for students who are considering starting food banks at their own schools.

The College and University Food Bank Alliance (CUFBA), founded by the Oregon State University Food Pantry and Michigan State Student Food Bank, provides support for new and existing college food banks across the country.

Voucher Programs

Students who purchased meal plans may not use their entire quota of meals. Instead of letting these funds and food to go waste, some schools have implemented programs that allow students in need to use unused swipes for a meal. Ask your Dining Services office about this.

Community-Based Options
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as Food Stamps)

For UHY who have recognized independent status, SNAP may be an option. The largest program in the domestic hunger safety net, SNAP offers nutrition assistance to millions of eligible, low-income individuals and families and provides economic benefits to communities.

Millions of potentially eligible Americans forgo application to SNAP, either out of difficulty in navigating the application process, or due to a perceived stigma associated federal aid.

It is not necessary to have a permanent address, or to be single, to be eligible for SNAP. To see if you might be eligible, visit the SNAP pre-screening tool. To apply for benefits, or for information about the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, contact your local SNAP office.

Food Banks, Pantries and Shelters

Many cities and communities have food bank/pantries and shelters that offer meals for free or low cost. Two online resources are especially helpful in finding them:

  • Feeding America

    This network of 200 food banks across the country distributes more than 3 million meals a year to needy Americans. The site includes a search tool for locating food banks by community or zip code.

  • FoodPantries.org

    Visitors to the site can learn about non-profit organizations, food banks and soup kitchens across the U.S. Participating organizations include ministries and fellowships, community food banks and housing organizations. Search for food pantries by state or zip code.

5 No-Prep Meal Hacks for a (Very) Limited Budget
Apple or Banana with Peanut Butter/Almond Butter/Cashew Butter

Almond and Cashew butter can be expensive per jar, but, like peanut butter, are extremely filling and can last a long time with careful rationing.

Rolled Oats with Cinnamon, Maple Syrup, Fruit

A hot pot or electric kettle can be a major (and manageably small) investment. Sunbeam has a hot pot for 14.99 at Target. Check the home appliance section of local thrift stores—you may get lucky. Buy a value pack of oats rather than buying store-made flavored brands. Plus, you might like the flavor more if you make it yourself.

Bean and Cheese Burritos

If a microwave isn’t in the budget, gas stations usually have these and will let you use them for free or if you are a paying customer. Your gas station might also sell cheese (or beans or tortillas), which you’ll need to come equipped with to make these simple burritos.

High Fiber Cereal with Fruit, Milk

A box of healthy, high fiber cereal may run you $3.50-5.50 per box, but a serving of high fiber will also fill you up faster than sugary cereals with less nutritional value. If you don’t have (or don’t have a place for) a refrigerator or mini-fridge, you might ask the dining staff at your university if you can make arrangements to either use space in their refrigerator storage or to pay a small fee for a cup of milk every day. If not, soft fruit like banana can help soften the texture of cereal.

Veggies & Rolls

Ask a local Italian restaurant if you can give them $1-2 dollars for a bag of rolls. Restaurants have to make fresh rolls, so offer to come by at the end of the day when they might even give you their extras for free. Buying frozen vegetables is often the cheaper option, but be sure to thaw before cooking to speed up the process. To steam, you will need to invest in tinfoil and some kind of pot or container with makeshift top. Boil water in your hot pot and transfer to the container, but not to the top. Put the vegetables in tinfoil and wrap the tinfoil around the edges of the container, above the water. Place a lid on the container and wait for steam to rise to cook your vegetables.


Public Transit Discounts

Many public transit systems offer discounts for students and/or low-income earners. You can typically access these discounts through the transit authority’s website. The U-Pass offered through the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) is a great example: over 50 schools in the Chicago area participate in the discounted student rate program. Some programs even allow students to ride for free, such as the South Bend Transpo student pass option at the University of Notre Dame, Saint Mary’s College, and other area institutions.


Carpooling with classmates who own cars is a terrific option– convenient, reliable, and generally cheap (you only have to pitch in gas money! And friends may even let you ride for free). We caution against owning your own car, which can quickly bring unexpected maintenance costs, require insurance payments, and become a hassle when parking is scarce.

Carpooling needn’t only be with classmates. Craigslist has a dedicated section for ridesharing, making it possible to find non-student residents in your community interested in sharing rides. Through companies like Zipcar, you can gain access to cars for low monthly fees.

Textbooks and School Supplies

The cost of textbooks and school supplies has ballooned in recent years and now represents significant hurdles for low-income students. Textbooks can cost upwards of $200-$400 each. According to a Student PIRGS report on textbook costs, nearly one-third of all students reported using financial aid to purchase textbooks, and their costs averaged more than $300 per semester; over the course of a four-year degree, that amounts to over $2,400 on average.

5 Hacks for Saving on Textbooks
Library (university or local)

Libraries may have multiple copies of textbooks available for borrowing. There will always be a limited supply and a limited number of renewals. This may be a good option if several of your classmates want to establish a renewal cycle share the textbook.

Campus Book Swap

Your school may arrange for swaps at the end and beginning of semesters to allow students to directly exchange used textbooks and other supplies.

Online Options

There are many used bookstores online, some of which specialize in used textbooks. Options include Alibris, Skyo, Better World Books, and Half.com If affording internet in an off-campus location is an issue, AT&T has an Access Program that provides low-cost internet services to qualifying SNAP participants in a 21-state service area (barring any outstanding debt to AT&T).

Campus Bookstore

While prices here may be higher, they have a good supply of the exact textbooks used in recent years and sold back to the bookstore. There’s less guesswork about whether you’re getting the right version of a textbook, and you generally have a guaranteed buy-back option at the end of the semester (at a reduced price, of course).

Textbook Rentals

Many sites, including Amazon.com allow you to rent a textbook for a semester at a fraction of the cover price.

E-book Versions

Often cheaper than their hardcover cousins, they are typically accessible through portable e-readers and online portals.

Medical Care

Campus Health Center

Today, most colleges and universities offer extensive physical and mental health services to students, often in on-campus settings with full-time staff and on-campus pharmacies. Fees for these services will vary, but are generally available to students at much lower costs than they would pay elsewhere.

Local clinics

There may be a free clinic in your community. These facilities may also be called sliding scale clinics or low-cost clinics; their purpose is to serve low-income individuals for free or at a nominal cost, based on income levels relative to the poverty line. Free clinics do not provide emergency care.

  • Homelessness and Medical Care

    Accessing adequate health care can be especially challenging for those experiencing homelessness. The two organizations linked below focus specifically on advocating for and providing health care access to the homeless.

  • National Health Care for the Homeless Council

    More than 10,000 physicians, patients, nurses, social workers and other healthcare professionals provide support to more than 200 public health centers and Health Care for the Homeless programs in all 50 states.

  • Health Care for the Homeless

    HCH provides comprehensive health care services and supportive services to people experiencing homelessness.

Mental Health Care

College life can be very demanding and stressful. When stresses become acute, it’s important to seek help. Depression and anxiety are on the rise among college students, with 87 percent of students reporting feeling overwhelmed and 33 percent reporting “feeling so depressed it was difficult to function” in a 2014 survey by the American College Health Association. Another survey conducted by the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) reveals that 50 percent of students who stopped attending college due to a mental illness had not accessed any on-campus mental health care services.

50 percent of students who stopped attending college due to mental illness had not accessed any of the on-campus mental health care services.

On-Campus Mental Health Services

Contact your Health Services office for assistance with mental health issues. Most schools have counselors available.

On-Campus Advocates

If you live on campus, RAs are an excellent place to turn. You will likely have established a personal connection with them and they tend to be sensitive to the multi-faceted nature of students’ issues. They can provide a trusting environment in which you can open up without fear of judgment – and they know what other campus and community resources to recommend.

At most colleges, you will have an academic advisor. While their primary role is to guide you in achieving academic goals, they can also act as confidantes, especially because so much anxiety in college stems from academics. Advisors are familiar with these stresses and may have valuable insights about coping in very concrete ways – for instance, how to better structure your study habits to reduce last-minute cramming for a test.

Student-Run Helplines

Some colleges maintain 24-hour telephone helplines where students can talk through their feelings with sympathetic and supportive staff. While professional staff almost always compose part of the team, students often play major roles. The helpline at Texas A&M University is an example of how one of these helplines typically operates.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1 (800) 273-8255

At this number, you’ll be connected to a skilled, trained counselor at a crisis center in your area (whether you are at school or away), 24/7, all year round.

Joining the National Conversation

One repeated finding in studies on mental illness among students is the perceived stigma of admitting to mental and emotional distress. Student advocacy organizations encourage a more open, national dialogue about the issues of mental and emotional health among college students. These organizations provide education, training, and student-run chapters creating safe spaces for talking through these issues.

  • Activeminds.org

    Active Minds supports a network of campus-based chapters that provide their campuses with a wide range of programming that educates peers about mental health, connects students to resources, and aims to change negative perceptions about mental health disorders. 

  • Jed Foundation

    The Jed Foundation's mission is to promote emotional health and prevent suicide among college and university students. The foundation has several student-centered educational initiatives, including ULifeline, a free online screening tool to help students better understand if their mental health could benefit from professional help, and Half of Us, to broadcast the stories of students and high-profile artists seeking help for their mental health challenges.

Collegiate Events and Opportunities
Free On-Campus Events

Schools host and sponsor free events to enrich students’ educational and social experiences. These range from lectures by renowned scholars to movie screenings, concerts and dances, career fairs, intramural sports leagues, retreats and university-funded clubs.

Alumni Network

All of the former students of your school compose its informal alumni network. Many alumni wish to extend a helping hand to current students. Schools maintain alumni databases, cataloguing their occupations and contact information. Your school’s alumni center also may coordinate a network of alumni clubs, providing support and resources for regional chapters that provide opportunities for alumni to gather.

Perhaps the most important function of the alumni network for current students is the opportunity to contact alumni regarding their fields of interest and potential job opportunities. Even if the alumni themselves don’t currently know of any job opportunities in your field, they often have an extensive network of contacts, and are more than willing to make introductions on behalf of students.

Use the Campus as a Playground

Taking care of your physical health goes a very long way towards taking care of your mental health – and consistent physical activity enhances your cognitive abilities. Grassy quads and athletic fields are perfect places to play pick-up games and relax in a vibrant setting. Athletic facilities are often available to all students, not just athletes.

Community Discounts

The benefits of being a student in college often extend into the surrounding community, where you can find student discounts at museums, restaurants, movie theaters, bookstores, gyms, and a host of other establishments.

The Balancing Act: School and Work

Although it’s important to attend classes and complete coursework, you will probably be attempting to balance college with the demands of a job.

Inform Your Employer

Tell your supervisors and your employer’s Human Resources (HR) department about your educational pursuits. Your employer may be able to adjust your schedule and work tasks to better accommodate your needs. Some businesses offer support for continuing education, including scholarships, part-time work arrangements, or discounts on classes.

Make a (Realistic) Weekly Goal Chart

Accomplishing realistic goals in well-defined blocks of time is a life skill useful beyond the classroom.

Listen to Your Inner Rhythm

You will optimize your study time. Notice when you tend to feel most energetic and focused: schedule study sessions during these times.


Don’t try to do everything. Make a list of potential activities and assess how each would help you towards your ultimate goals, then prioritize those that seem the most beneficial.

Schedule Downtime

Relaxation and rest are essential for recharging your energy and motivation.

Many aspects of higher education’s value are ultimately unquantifiable – the close friendships, the shaping of the mind, the development of values. But higher education also remains one of the most important economic investments you can make in your future. According to the Georgetown Public Policy Institute, by 2020 more than 65% of jobs will demand training and education beyond high school. And there will be no shortage of demand: 55 million job opportunities will present through 2020 from a combination of baby boomer retirement and new job creation. There will be a shortage of supply, however: the report projects that there will be a shortfall of 5 million workers for available jobs requiring college-level education and skills. This means that a college education will only continue to increase in value. For low-income and homeless students, college presents numerous hurdles, but clearing them presents remarkable opportunity.


Cyekeia Lee, is the Director of Higher Education Initiatives with the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY).

How widespread is the problem of homelessness when it comes to college students?

Currently there is no one way to capture the number of homeless students on college campuses. The number of homeless students within the K-12 system has continued to rise and we know that many homeless students are able to access higher education, often their housing status does not change. Additionally, there is an increasing number of students that become homeless once enrolled in college due to many different factors…Some of [the reasons students become homeless] include but are not limited to: poverty, loss of income, lack of affordable housing, abuse or neglect in the home, domestic violence in the home, family conflict, parental incarnation, mental illness, or death.

What unique problems do these students face and how are they able to overcome them? Are they less likely to complete their degrees?

Many homeless students struggle to have the most basic needs while attending college and struggle to find stable housing, food, clothing and hygiene products. Aside from basic needs students may also suffer from trauma and stress. Financial Aid, and financial stability are also barriers for these students as they are difficult to obtain without parental support. Many college campuses have implemented our Single Point of Contact (SPOC) model to have a supportive campus administrator to assist homeless students with on an off campus supports. Students can also tap into campus resources such as housing, food and clothing banks, financial aid, and mental health supports to overcome these barriers. There have not been any studies on degree completion for homeless students at this time.

Is there any public or private help available for these students? Are the colleges stepping in to provide assistance?

Many campuses are appointing a SPOC on campus to assist homeless students, or they are opening food banks, allowing residents halls to stay open year round, and some campuses are also awarding specific scholarships for homeless students. Resources vary from state to state and at each higher education institution. NAEHCY has a scholarship program from homeless college students in addition to our national toll-free helpline where we connect students to many resources.

What advice would you give a person who is homeless that wants to go to college and earn a degree?

I would say that your homeless status alone does not have to hinder you from earning a degree. Students should check with their campus to see what resources and supports are available to assist them with their academic goals. 


Sara Goldrick-Rab is a Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Founding Director at the Wisconsin HOPE Lab.

How widespread is the problem of homelessness when it comes to college students?

It’s hard to know the truth because nobody is systematically measuring that. It’s not like there is some nationwide survey of college students. The Free Application for Federal Student Aid has questions that ask if you are homeless. If you want to check that box you have to prove you are homeless by getting paperwork, which is very difficult to do. It usually means going to a shelter and staying there overnight to get the proper documentation. There’s a severe undercount, but the latest estimate is that 58,000 students around the country were able to prove their homelessness on FAFSA. My guess is that [represents] less than one-quarter of homeless students.

What are the main causes of it?

There are a couple of things…There is a genuine housing crisis in many cities that’s creating homelessness in general. There’s a shortage of affordable housing…and an overall rising cost of living. The other part is, in the past people going through such circumstance didn’t go to college. We have gone through a period of time where we pushed more people toward college because there’s no other way out of poverty. They feel trapped. They grew up poor and they don’t want to stay poor so they go to college. And while they might get more financial aid it doesn’t make it affordable. It doesn’t cover that much at all and it doesn’t cover their living costs. They end up paying the price in a pretty big way. I’ve met students that say the only way to stay in school and afford books is to forgo having a roof over their head. UCLA is about to open its first homeless shelter this fall showcasing how things have gotten so bad.

What unique problems do these students face and how are they able to overcome them? Are they less likely to complete their degrees?

They do appear less likely to graduate. It’s hard enough for some students [who are] first in their families to go to college and fit in and it’s really hard for a homeless student to feel like they belong…They try really hard to not look homeless. Then there’s the big issue of supplies for school because there’s no safe place to put them in a shelter. Where are they supposed to study? It’s hard enough to be homeless but it is really hard to be homeless and trying to do this college thing.

Is there any public or private help available for these students? Are the colleges stepping in to provide assistance?

At the college level the hard part is many colleges and universities either don’t see themselves as an appropriate provider of those services or have the resources to help. Funding at places where the homeless go to school is incredibly short. And while there are community services for homeless people, students don’t want to go to those places. They are separating themselves in their heads from other homeless people and feel a lot of shame and stigma when they are treated likely any other homeless person. There’s not a lot of systematic help. There’s a lot of small programs like Single Stop based in New York, which operates in about two dozen colleges around the country to help students get access to government programs. I estimate fewer than 200 colleges out of more than 4,000 are doing much of anything. There’s also no Federal funding stream for it. In K-12 there are all these federal polices about serving homeless children but the minute they turn 18 all bets are off.

What advice would you give a person who is homeless that wants to go to college and earn a degree?

I think the hardest thing for them to do to make sure the college knows the situation, but it’s important. Students have to find someone at the college that they can try to trust. They need to find somebody who can become an advocate because the chances are pretty good they will run in to some real challenges and somebody has got to be able to explain that. They need to know they are not alone by any stretch…

Updated: July 28, 2017