The Housing Crisis for Community College Students is Out of Control

Blog Post
Jan. 13, 2022

America has a housing crisis. Nationwide skyrocketing costs have made housing unaffordable for millions of Americans. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting recession, nearly half of all renter households were cost-burdened, meaning they paid more than 30% of their income towards rent. This trend has likely worsened since the pandemic, particularly for people of color and people with low incomes. This housing crisis – while widespread – is not felt equally: Black and Latino households are more likely to be severely cost-burdened and face housing insecurity.

This housing crisis is acutely felt by community college students. In 2020, 52 percent of all community college students experienced housing insecurity. Housing costs are so substantial for community college students that they are often larger than the cost of tuition itself.

This means that for many college students, it’s more expensive to afford housing than tuition – a reality that the discussion regarding “free” college frequently fails to address.

Given that 26 percent of community college students are parents, and that 59 percent of community college students receive financial aid to help afford tuition, community college students, in particular, need affordable, high-quality housing. As most community colleges do not offer on-campus housing, community colleges lack the tools four-year universities have to offer their students' subsidized housing. If students cannot afford to live while attending college, they will not be able to realize the benefits of a community college education. Instead, these students face the detrimental possibility of eviction – which can significantly impact their mental and physical health.

Students facing housing insecurity have higher rates of anxiety and depression, worse health outcomes, and lower GPAs than their housing secure peers. Students who dropout of community college despite succeeding academically commonly report that costs associated with living expenses, such as housing, impacted their decision to leave school without a degree. Efforts to improve community college outcomes must therefore consider the holistic needs of community college students: if students cannot afford basic needs – housing, food, and transportation – they will not be able to thrive.

The Urgency and the Solutions

Given the urgency of this problem, there are two potential solutions that build on our existing policy infrastructure. Policymakers could pursue one, or both, of these solutions, so long as they are ambitious enough to solve the housing crisis for community college students.

  • Provide housing vouchers to community college students with low incomes so they can afford housing
  • Reform the financial aid system to provide students with additional resources to afford their housing expenses

Provide Housing Vouchers to Students with Low Incomes

Federal, state, and local governments can partner with community colleges to provide students with vouchers to afford their housing expenses. Innovative partnerships like the College Housing Assistance Program (CHAP) between the Tacoma Housing Authority and Tacoma Community College, which offers housing assistance to Tacoma Community College students experiencing homelessness, exemplify how governments can partner with community colleges to help students access affordable housing. The CHAP program has the potential to positively impact the housing needs – and educational outcomes – of the students it serves. Preliminary research explains that community colleges and policymakers could improve CHAP and similar programs if they provided such programs with additional staffing, offered further assistance for student housing searches, and reduced administrative burden for student enrollment. Policymakers and colleges should consider these recommendations in future programs so that public dollars can help students afford housing that meets their needs.

Increase Financial Aid to Better Address Living Expenses

The financial aid process is inconsistent and confusing and often forces students to cover significant expenses in order to attend college. To help students afford the housing expenses necessary to attend and complete community college, policymakers could increase federal and state aid to provide students with sufficient resources to afford stable housing. This could involve increasing the maximum Pell Grant award – the federal government’s primary federal student aid program – so that students can better afford the total cost of attending college; increasing cost of attendance estimates to account for rising housing costs; and expanding access to emergency aid to cover unexpected financial shocks that could otherwise force students to experience housing insecurity. At the state level, policymakers could increase the impact of state aid by utilizing first-dollar models that provide funds to students without considering other potential sources of financial aid and ensuring financial aid can be spent on living expenses, rather than just tuition.

While there are multiple ways to ensure students can afford stable housing, it’s clear that action is needed – now – in the midst of an unfolding global pandemic and time of extreme economic uncertainty. Policymakers, community colleges, advocates, and researchers need to work together to ensure that all people, regardless of their incomes, can access education while affording their most basic needs. Anything else is unacceptable.

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