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Housing Barriers to College Success

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Housing Barriers to College Success

Photograph of six students carrying folders and tablets and walking on a sidewalk flanked by streetlights, vegetation, and buildings.
Students who cannot find adequate, affordable housing near their campus or cover their living expenses through financial aid or other benefits may compensate in ways that make them less likely to graduate.

Children’s life outcomes, including their success in school, are closely aligned with their housing and neighborhood conditions. This insight has led practitioners and policymakers to emphasize the role of place as they design new interventions, from the Harlem Children’s Zone to HUD’s Choice Neighborhoods program. Evidence also demonstrates that as students progress to postsecondary education, housing conditions continue to affect their educational success. Housing for college students could be the next frontier for place-based programs.

Students Often Experience Housing Insecurity

Students are disproportionately at risk to experience housing insecurity, and many struggle to find adequate, affordable housing near their campus. Students often lack a rental history, someone to act as a guarantor, or the savings for a security deposit. For example, 41.7 percent of City University of New York (CUNY) students surveyed in 2011 reported they were housing instable. More than 56,000 college students indicated they were homeless on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) in 2013—and that figure almost certainly underestimates the true total.

Most undergraduate students live off-campus today. During the 2011–12 school year, 50 percent of undergraduates lived off campus separately from their families and 37 percent lived off campus with their families. By comparison, only 13 percent of undergraduates lived on campus.

For many students, living costs exceed the cost of tuition and fees. At community colleges, room-and-board costs on average account for more than two-thirds of the cost. Low-income and some minority students are often reluctant to borrow when grants do not cover their costs, and many college counselors advise these students not to do so.

Colleges also appear to systematically underestimate students’ off-campus living costs, limiting students’ access to federal financial aid. While students can receive federal housing assistance such as Housing Choice Vouchers, specific restrictions apply to students. Students’ eligibility may depend on their parents’ income, whether the student is enrolled full time or part time, and whether the student’s household wholly consists of students.

The Impact of Student Housing Insecurity

Housing needs affect students’ success in college. When students cannot cover their living expenses through financial aid or other benefits, they often compensate in ways that make them less likely to graduate. Evidence shows that students who lack sufficient financial aid often work more hours, enroll part-time, or don’t buy key resources like textbooks.

Beyond logistical constraints, living in poverty has a biological impact on the brain that affects academic success. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, from 2009 to 2011, a majority of students living off-campus and not with relatives had incomes below the poverty level.

These challenges have likely affected college completion rates in the United States. Surging college enrollment over the past decade and a half has opened opportunities for millions more students. Today, over 70 percent of Americans enroll at a four-year college. But graduation rates remain low: just over half of students who enroll at a four-year college graduate within six years. Only five percent of students complete a two-year associate degree on time, and only 40 percent do so within six years. Dropping out can have serious financial consequences, especially if students have financed their education with loans. Students who attend but fail to earn a degree are far more likely to default on their student loans than those who graduate.

Addressing Student Housing Needs

Most research to date on the intersection of housing and college success has considered the benefits of on-campus housing. Students appear to be more likely to graduate if they live on campus, particularly when the on-campus experience encourages student learning and engagement. It is not yet clear, though, that on-campus housing is cost-effective compared to other interventions. Also, as college enrollment has surged, on-campus housing construction has not matched increased enrollment. While public-private partnerships have financed new construction, these dorms are often less affordable than existing on-campus options.

Instead, new place-based strategies may be more cost-effective. At 18 community colleges around the country, Single Stop USA helps low-income students overcome barriers to success, including housing needs. Single Stop coordinators perform full assessments of students’ needs and connect students with benefits programs. According to Single Stop, the program can improve retention rates as much as 20 percent. A recent implementation assessment indicates that Single Stop plays a key role on many campuses, and a quantitative assessment is in the works.  

In Washington State, the Tacoma Housing Authority has partnered with Tacoma Community College, the region’s largest postsecondary institution, to launch an innovative housing assistance program for students. The Tacoma Community College Housing Assistance Program provides Housing Choice Vouchers, as well as comprehensive counseling, for full-time students who are homeless or at risk of homelessness.

Evaluations of programs like Single Stop and the Tacoma Community College Housing Assistance Program will inform potential interventions moving forward. We also need to know more about the issue in general. There is very little national data concerning student housing security, despite its potentially enormous impact on student success.

For more information, please see Barriers to Success: Housing Insecurity for U.S. College Students.

Published Date: March 9, 2015

The contents of this article are the views of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development or the U.S. Government.