For most members of the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) community, life has returned to normal after the horrific shooting in May. Young people leisurely roll down streets on skateboards to buy supplies for nightly festivities, while others return from spending the day at the beach soaking up the summer sun. But for a growing group of marginalized students, this lifestyle is far from “normal.” Increasingly, economic pressures are forcing some to choose between paying for rent or tuition. Amid the Mediterranean architecture and tropically-flowered landscape, lives a largely invisible population of homeless students.
In the 10 years between 2001 and 2011, University of California tuition skyrocketed by 355 percent. Nationally, inflation-adjusted tuition and fees at public universities have increased 27 percent over the past five years (2008 to 2013), according to the College Board. While it is almost passé to discuss rising tuition costs, readers may be surprised to find that this year, room and board expenses increased at a faster rate than tuition. Over the past five years, inflation-adjusted room and board rates across the country rose almost as quickly as tuition: 21 percent. Here at UCSB (and at most public universities in the country), room and board expenses still remain higher than surging tuition rates.
“Higher education can’t be a luxury – it’s an economic imperative that every family in America should be able to afford.” President Obama’s comments on educational reform in his 2012 State of the Union address must have sounded hollow to homeless youth, whose number had hit an all-time high in the same year. According to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY), 1.2 million public school children under the age of 18 were homeless in 2011-12, a 10 percent increase over the previous year and a 71 percent increase since the beginning of the recession in 2006-07.
Unfortunately, homeless college students remain institutionally overlooked and no reliable nationwide data exists. Colleges are not required to keep data on student homelessness and FAFSA only recently began to include a question regarding the subject. On 2012-13 FAFSA applications, 58,158 college students identified as homeless, an 8 percent increase from the previous year and a 23 percent increase from the first year data was collected (2009-10). The actual numbers are likely far higher.
Recently, concerned students and staff at universities around the country began conducting studies of their student populations. A 2013 survey of over 1,000 students at UCSB found that 4.7 percent of respondents were currently homeless, 57 percent knew at least one student who was homeless, 68 percent had reported struggling to find affordable housing and 8.9 percent had identified as being homeless at some point during their college career. A similar survey in the same year at the nearby Santa Barbara Community College found comparable results: 4.8 percent of over 1,000 student respondents reported being homeless. Nearly a thousand miles away, a 2011 survey at the Community College of Denver had concluded that nearly 7 percent of students had experienced (or were experiencing) homelessness while enrolled.
Homelessness among youth has been linked to other issues such as food insecurity and unemployment. According to the Economic Policy Institute’s compilation of official US labor statistics, the unemployment rate for young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 peaked at 19.2 percent after the 2008 recession, the highest rate ever recorded. Recent surveys at the City University of New York (CUNY), the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the University of Western Oregon found that students reported limited or uncertain access to adequate food at profoundly higher rates than local or national levels. In response to growing student needs, the number of food banks on college campuses in the United States has exploded from four in 2008 to 121 in 2014.
While many college campuses have begun to make progress addressing the nutritional needs of economically disadvantaged students, virtually no services are offered for the homeless. Homelessness remains stigmatized and discussions are muted, despite the problem’s severity and pervasiveness.
At the oceanside community of UCSB, like virtually all other universities across the country, no income-based housing, temporary housing, emergency shelter or safe parking is provided. UCSB is currently building complexes that will house an additional 1,500 students next year and thousands more in the future. Costs of rent will be based on the skyrocketing market prices and no rooms will be allocated for students’ alternative housing needs.
The tens of thousands of college students who choose to pay tuition over rent clearly believe in the power of education as a pathway out of poverty; institutional changes are needed so that future generations will not have to endure the same struggle.