Homelessness and Higher Education

By: Alex Galvan

This past week La Casa Norte, a Chicago-based organization that works to serve youth and families confronting homelessness, held its 4th Annual “More Than Ever” Education Luncheon in support of their Youth in College Program. In 2018, the organization was successful in raising over $44,000 to provide scholarships for students exiting transitional housing programs and participating in higher education. While there has been an overall increase in college enrollment by students from historically underrepresented groups, students experiencing homelessness face complex, unique barriers in comparison to their housed peers, leading to lower college completion rates, and therefore, lower overall socioeconomic mobility.

In 2018 the Wisconsin HOPE Lab found that 36% of college students say they are housing insecure, while 9 percent report being homeless. 36% of students surveyed also reported experiencing food insecurity, leading students to skip meals and limiting student access to nutritious foods. In order to meet these needs, students experiencing both housing and food insecurity tend to work more, commute more, spend more time taking care of people, and sleep less. Despite these challenges, according to this study, students facing both housing and food insecurity devote an equal amount of academic effort as their peers, supporting the argument that, given the necessary supports, students in this demographic would not only succeed, but thrive.


As a result of this study, and other recent studies, several calls to action have been made to both universities and government as a whole.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act has been imperative in ensuring K-12 students experiencing homelessness receive a quality education, despite the challenges of homelessness. Unfortunately, serving students experiencing homelessness is not required or funded in higher education. It has been suggested that, in order to provide students in higher education the same resources necessary to persist in college, the McKinney-Vento Act be extended to include students in higher education.

In addition to expanding federal policies and already-existing programs, an additional suggestion is to provide funding to cover students’ living expenses, as well as to create programs that would offer free meals to food-insecure college students. Universities, such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison have taken the initiative and created a student-run food pantry on campus. Programs such as the one proposed could funnel directly into these already-created structures, further strengthening student supports on campus.

Overall, while the number of students from historically underrepresented groups attending college is on the rise, students experiencing homelessness face unique barriers and therefore require an additional set of supports. Scholarships such as those provided by La Casa Norte and NAEHCY work to ensure students experiencing homelessness are provided the economic support to persist through college, yet there is a greater call to action for universities and government to create programs and policies that would further support this group of students.