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“‘Homeless college student’ seems like a contradiction in terms,” said Paul Toro, a psychology professor at Wayne State University who studies poverty and homelessness. “If you’re someone who has the wherewithal to get yourself into college, well, of course you should be immune to homelessness. But that just isn’t the case.”
It’s difficult to know exactly how many students are homeless, or are dangling dangerously close to it, in part because of the enormous stigma surrounding the issue.
But new research shows how pervasive a problem it is — and one that some educators believe is growing.
Last month, the Wisconsin HOPE Lab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, released a study that surveyed students at 70 community colleges in 24 states. It found that 14 percent were homeless. Those findings build on a study released last year by California State University that estimated that 8 percent to 12 percent of its students were homeless. In 2015-16, 32,000 college applicants were identified as “unaccompanied homeless youth” on federal student aid forms, a number widely considered to be a low count.
There are several possible reasons the problem appears to be so widespread, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, founder of the HOPE Lab and a professor of higher education policy at Temple University. One is that there are fewer well-paying jobs these days for those without a college degree. Only 11 percent of the homeless students she surveyed in the HOPE study reported making more than $15 an hour.
The college-going population, she said, has also changed. “One of the nuances here is that there are people going to college who didn’t used to go,” Dr. Goldrick-Rab said. “If you didn’t have a parent with a college degree in the past, you didn’t go to college. If you were a foster youth, you didn’t go to college. It’s a big triumph that we have expanded access in this way, but we didn’t change the schools and we didn’t change the policies.”