More than half of Washington community-college students had trouble paying rent or had to move in with friends or relatives in the past year, according to a new report on food and housing insecurity among two-year college students.
Nearly 1 in 5 said they were homeless and had to sleep outside, in a car or at a shelter. And more than 40% went hungry or couldn’t afford to buy nutritious food.
The findings were released Tuesday and offer the most comprehensive look at homelessness, housing and food insecurity among Washington’s community college-goers to date. A lack of most of these basic needs is slightly more common among students here than those nationwide, the study found.
This is the first time Washington’s community colleges joined the nationwide survey, called the #RealCollege Survey and is led by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University in Philadelphia.
Rates of homelessness as well as food and housing insecurity varied by campus. But overall, students of color, those who identify as transgender, students with children and those who’d been in the foster-care system fared worse than others.
Homelessness was most prevalent among American Indian, Alaskan Native and indigenous students, as well as those of Middle Eastern, North African or Arab descent: roughly a third said they’d experienced homelessness in the past year.
Although schools in most states participated in the survey, Washington is one of few places where all or most of the state’s community colleges took part. More than 13,500 students out of about 143,750 students enrolled at 28 of the state’s 34 community and technical colleges completed the survey.
The report sketches out a stark image of community-college students’ vulnerabilities here. Homelessness and hunger are visible on the streets of Seattle and other cities in Washington, but their scope can be difficult to pin down on college campuses. To some, the findings came as a surprise.
“We never had a way to track or have data,” said Christina Castorena, vice president for student services at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, where campus statistics mirrored the state’s averages. “We really felt, ‘Wow, this is more prevalent on our campus than we initially thought,’ and now we really need to scale up our resources.”
In fall 2019, students filled out an online questionnaire that asked about their ability to pay for food, housing and related costs. The study distinguishes housing insecurity from homelessness: Students who are housing insecure have trouble paying rent, for instance, while homeless students report spending nights on the street or couch surfing.
Nearly 70% of parenting students, and 72% of those who were in foster care said they’d experienced housing insecurity. These students also had higher-than-average rates of food insecurity.
Since its start five years ago, the study has attempted to fill in gaps where nationwide data-collection efforts come up short. The U.S. Department of Education doesn’t compile such data but plans to this fall, said Sara Goldrick-Rab, who founded the Hope Center.
Washington lawmakers took a stab at addressing students’ basic needs last legislative session in what Goldrick-Rab called a “remarkable” series of bills. Lawmakers signed off on legislation that offers free or partial tuition to the state’s two- and four-year public schools through the Washington College Grant. Legislators also approved $548,000 for a pilot program to study homelessness at four community colleges and created a grant for college students who need emergency housing or other assistance.
“We have not usually seen legislatures go at it from many angles,” Goldrick-Rab said. “That stood out.”
Slightly more Washington students sign up for public assistance programs, such as Medicaid or food stamps, than do students nationwide, the survey found. Even so, only a fraction of students get what they need. For example, about 10% of homeless students get housing assistance. Just fewer than 30% of students who are hungry or can’t afford healthy food say they use food stamps.
Some colleges are partnering with nonprofits, such as United Way, to amplify their ability to serve students in need. At Shoreline Community College, addressing food insecurity used to mean directing students to a “small cabinet” stocked with soup in a student resources center, said Sundi Musnicki, director of student leadership and residential life at the college.
Now, through the college’s partnership with United Way, an office in the student union has full-time staff who offer students food and other goods. “It’s honestly a one-stop shop for students who are experiencing food insecurity, if they just need a new shirt or coat to wear, or if they need a new Orca card,” Musnicki said.
In past years, Goldrick-Rab said, data from the #RealCollege survey helped spur officials in other states to take on large-scale basic-needs programs, such as a student housing pilot in Massachusetts.
It’s too late in this year’s short legislative session for new initiatives – Feb. 19 was the cutoff to pass new bills out of either chamber. And the state’s pilot study on student homelessness isn’t due until the end of 2023.
The lawmaker who sponsored the bill that created the pilot study said “we’re not stalling action” until the pilot’s results are due, and said she’d like to see new student-housing legislation next session. “I’ll be visiting colleges all interim and talking with students and staff about best next steps,” said Sen. Emily Randall, D-Bremerton.