The Resource Guide for Homeless and Low-Income Students
Homeless and Low-Income Student Resources
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.
For homeless youth, there are many barriers to academic success and degree completion. In addition to family homelessness, the National Conference of State Legislatures estimates that some 700,000 youth experience homelessness on their own each year — without the accompaniment of 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 2017 study by the College and University Food Bank Alliance, half of all community college students struggle with food or housing insecurity, 22% of these students deal with acute hunger and 15% of them have experienced homelessness.
Recent studies have also 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 by answering some of the most pressing questions: Where to find assistance both on and off-campus, and how to effectively ask for it, and how to live on a low income.
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 dramatically across the board — at four-year private institutions, two-year public institutions, and four-year public institutions. Many of these colleges even saw their costs grow by as much as 100%. Tuition at private four-year institutions now averages $35,830 per year, while public four-year institutions average $10,230 per year. Financing these 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.
Institutions Awarding Scholarships
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. The Financial Aid Office at UCLA offers an Affordability and Financial Aid guide, for instance, that describes the scholarships offered by the university and provides links to other scholarship databases. Most schools offer a similar breakdown of what it costs to attend.
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 $25,000 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.
More Scholarship Resources:
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.
UHY and the FAFSA
If you are a UHY (Unaccompanied Homeless Youth) student, the College Cost Reduction and Access Act allows your financial aid to be calculated on your own income, not your parents' income, and you don't need a parent signature on your FAFSA.
TO BE DESIGNATED UHY , 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
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 often doesn't come earlier than 10 days before the semester starts, and it could be weeks into the semester, depending on how late in the process they filed.
- A Federal Pell Grant, unlike a loan, does not have to be repaid.
- 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 on the 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. 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 are generally awarded as part of 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.
Financial Resources for Homeless Groups
Find housing options, financial information and helpful resources for specific groups below.
Learn more about VA home loans and the additional VA housing options in MoneyGeek’s Veterans Benefits for Housing Guide.
If you’re in an abusive relationship and facing homelessness, find valuable financial information, housing organizations, and more with MoneyGeek’s Financial Help for Those in Abusive Relationships.
Students in Recovery
Find financial and recovery resources if you’re battling an addiction in MoneyGeek’s Financial Recovery After Addiction Guide.
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
Cheap Apartments for College Students - Sublet.com
Search for apartments by state, region, and city.
American Campus Communities operates this list of student apartments, searchable by college location, state or community.
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:
A comprehensive, state-by-state master list of shelters and supportive housing.
Resources for Homeless Youth - HUD Exchange
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development offers resources, pertinent links, and publications as part of its Special Needs Assistance Programs (SNAP).
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 the break.
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 student food banks, and meal plan voucher programs.
Food Recovery Network
The Food Recovery Network (which absorbed 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 230 current chapters, you can take the initiative in creating one.
Student Food Banks
Student food banks are similar to the Food Recovery Network, 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.
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.
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 applying for SNAP benefits, either out of the difficulty in navigating the application process or due to a perceived stigma associated with 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 eligibility page. 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 banks/pantries and shelters that offer meals for free or a low cost. Two online resources are especially helpful in finding them:
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.
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 and can be found for around $20. 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 them 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 $3.50-6.50 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.
If you have a vehicle, it’s important to look into your car insurance savings as a student, such as lower premiums, student and good driver discounts, and more. Shopping around and comparing car insurance quotes can also save you significantly.
Textbooks and School Supplies
The cost of textbooks and school supplies has generally ballooned in recent years and now represents significant hurdles for low-income students. On the high end of the spectrum, textbooks can cost upwards of $200-$400 each. According to a 2018 Florida Virtual Campus report on textbook costs, over 40% of students reported using financial aid to purchase textbooks, and their costs averaged more than $1,200 per academic year. Over the course of a four-year degree, that can amount to nearly $5,000.
6 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 to 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.
There are many used bookstores online, some of which specialize in used textbooks. Options include Alibris, Big Words, Better World Books, and Thrift Books. 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).
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).
Many sites, including Amazon, allow you to rent a textbook for a semester at a fraction of the cover price.
Often cheaper than their hardcover cousins, they are typically accessible through portable e-readers and online portals.
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.
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 over 85% of students reporting feeling overwhelmed and over 40% reporting "feeling so depressed it was difficult to function," according to a 2018 survey by the American College Health Association. And though awareness and institutional guidance are becoming more and more prevalent, we're still only a few years removed from the National Alliance on Mental Illness's (NAMI) report revealing that 50% 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 school's student health center for assistance with mental health issues. Most schools have counselors available.
If you live on campus, resident assistants 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.
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.
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.
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.
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, cataloging 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.
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.
Prioritize 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 — including the close friendships, the shaping of the mind and the development of values. But higher education also remains one of the most important economic investments you can make in your future. A growing number of jobs demand training and education beyond that of high school. And with the impending baby boomer retirement, as well as an uptick in job creation, there will be no shortage of demand, though supply will likely be lacking. This suggests 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.
- How widespread is the problem of homelessness when it comes to college students?
- What are the main causes of it?
- What unique problems do these students face and how are they able to overcome them? Are they less likely to complete their degrees?
- Is there any public or private help available for these students? Are the colleges stepping in to provide assistance?
- What advice would you give a person who is homeless that wants to go to college and earn a degree?
Director of Higher Education Initiatives, NAEHCY
Founding Director, Wisconsin HOPE Lab
Professor of Psychology at Nova Southeastern University
About the Author