Housing insecurity plagues many college students in the U.S., but the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified issues of basic needs insecurity and student homelessness.

COVID-19 Worsens Housing Insecurity for College Students


  • COVID-19 and campus closures have magnified housing security issues for students.
  • A lack of secure housing negatively impacts student enrollment and success.
  • Many schools refuse to refund students for room and board costs.
  • Solutions to housing insecurity include wraparound services and community partnerships.

The current global pandemic has exposed an enormous number of social inequities across the United States. As our country contends with record unemployment, housing insecurity has remained a major concern for numerous college students.

COVID-19 has transformed the higher education landscape, forcing schools to make the difficult decision to temporarily close their campuses and operate remotely in order to protect the health and safety of their students, staff, and faculty.

Many colleges' operational plans for the fall promise the closure of residence halls and other on-campus housing. But student housing isn't just a space for connecting students — it's also a safe haven and critical resource for students who are homeless or experiencing housing insecurity.

What Is Housing Insecurity?

Housing insecurity has no universal definition and can encompass a variety of challenges, such as difficulty paying for living expenses, overcrowding, forced evictions, substandard housing, and frequent moving.

College can be an extremely stressful time as students navigate the many academic, social, financial, and psychological stressors that come with adjusting to college life. Housing insecurity can have an extraordinary impact on their ability to persist and ultimately graduate.

According to a 2019 report from The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, nearly 3 in 5 students experienced housing insecurity the previous year, and almost half of students at two-year institutions experienced food insecurity in the past 30 days. Moreover, 18% of two-year college students and 14% of four-year students reported experiencing homelessness.

According to a 2019 report, nearly 3 in 5 college students experienced housing insecurity the previous year.

As commuters, community college students lack access to on-campus housing and thus remain disproportionately impacted by rising housing costs in metropolitan areas.

At the start of the pandemic, colleges abruptly closed down, forcing students out of on-campus housing with just a few days' notice. This left many students with limited choices. Some opted to live with others, while some were unable to return to a safe and stable home. A number of schools allowed students to stay in on-campus housing.

When colleges and universities make decisions to temporarily suspend on-campus services like access to residence halls, dining halls, and student employment, it can have serious impacts on students who depend on these services and opportunities for survival.

If our goal is to promote equity in education, we must pay attention to the prevalence of housing insecurity.

For College Students, Housing Insecurity Is Nothing New

The housing insecurity issue on college campuses is not a recent development. For years students have struggled to find access to adequate, affordable housing. Many students who have opted to attend local colleges must make the decision to either stay with their family or pursue on-campus living arrangements.

On-campus living costs often exceed what students pay in annual tuition and fees. At two-year colleges, room and board costs typically make up more than two-thirds of the total cost of attendance. Furthermore, low-income students and students of color are less likely to take out loans when grants and scholarships fail to cover their living expenses.

On-campus living costs often exceed what students pay in annual tuition and fees.

With rising tuition costs and financial aid packages that do not fully cover the cost of attendance — as well as hidden fees like food, gas, internet, and childcare — college students are facing an economic crisis. This problem is often worse in high-cost areas such as Los Angeles and New York, where many students go into thousands of dollars of debt to keep up with the rising cost of housing.

Housing insecurity can also wreak havoc for rural students living in remote areas lacking adequate and accessible living options. Rural counties are persistently poor, and a disproportionate amount of the country's occupied substandard housing remains concentrated in rural areas.

A large stigma is attached to facing housing insecurity, and college students may be reluctant to ask for help or are experiencing insecurity out of fear or embarrassment.

Housing Insecurity Impacts Student Enrollment, Success

According to the 2018 U.S. Government Accountability Office report, a lack of food and housing undermines college students' educational experiences and their ability to earn their degree. The Hope Center states that "housing insecurity and homelessness have a … statistically significant relationship with college completion rates, persistence, and credit attainment."

COVID-19 has caused an unprecedented number of job losses, and the drop in income has led to basic needs insecurity. Many schools have had to furlough workers or reduce student employees' hours. Additionally, most students who work off-campus jobs in the service industry were either temporarily or permanently laid off during statewide COVID-19 shutdowns.

COVID-19 has caused an unprecedented number of job losses, and the drop in income has led to basic needs insecurity.

Students who are divorced from their families or who lack adequate financial support to rebound from the impact of income loss are forced into a life of homelessness and housing insecurity. With the lukewarm federal response to COVID-19 — and the lack of support offered to individuals facing housing insecurity — many students are finding themselves in dire straits.

The impact of housing insecurity on student enrollment and academic persistence cannot be examined in isolation. Studies show that housing insecurity can impact health outcomes, such as asthma, depression, substance abuse disorders, and chronic diseases. It can also affect a student's ability to focus on their studies.

While many colleges have done a profound job redesigning their support services to assist students virtually, it can be extremely challenging to manage housing insecurity from a distance. This is especially true for first-generation students, foster students, students of color, and nonnative English speakers.

There's No Easy Solution to Housing Insecurity

The coronavirus has presented higher education leaders with a new conundrum. Now, colleges must make decisions about how to best serve their students through remote services, while still delivering these services in a way that is equitable to historically disadvantaged populations.

Universities' COVID-19 response has been mixed. Colleges had to weigh whether to keep residence and dining halls open and risk spreading COVID-19, or make students leave.

Students at Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, for example, had to pack up their dorms rather abruptly this March. MIT even offered monetary incentives and reimbursements to those who were able to move out quickly.

Colleges had to weigh whether to keep residence halls open and risk spreading COVID-19, or make students leave.

Some private institutions, such as Stanford University and Pomona College, required students to leave campus unless their petition or application was approved. Students had to demonstrate extenuating circumstances to be allowed to stay in residence halls.

Meanwhile, Brigham Young University, whose campus houses around 5,600 single students, made isolation quarters available to those who contracted COVID-19. Unfortunately, this special housing can only accommodate 5% of the single-student population.

Immense backlash occurred after colleges forced students to move off campus and refused to refund them for campus housing. Many students vocalized discontentment and took legal action against colleges that chose not to distribute refunds. Texas Representative Lance Gooden urged colleges to issue refunds to students who'd been forced to move out of campus housing.

Colleges are already facing enrollment declines and decreased state funding allocations. Many schools would be unable to handle the economic fallout if refunds are issued to every student. For smaller schools in particular, offering refunds could jeopardize their financial future.

Considerations for Addressing Housing Insecurity

Many schools recognize the prevalence of housing insecurity and have instituted programs to manage homelessness.

Florida Atlantic University's comprehensive Educate Tomorrow program offers wraparound services for students who've experienced foster care or housing insecurity. This program also provides students with academic tutoring and support, engagement opportunities, advocacy, and scholarships and loans for housing assistance.

The coronavirus has exacerbated the need for emergency and short-term housing. DePaul University developed the Dax Program, which places students in need with host families who offer them a place to live for up to 12 weeks.

Many colleges also partner with local organizations and businesses to address student homelessness. Tacoma Community College in Tacoma, Washington, maintains a program in conjunction with the Tacoma Housing Authority to provide rental assistance to homeless students and their dependents.

Many schools have instituted programs and/or partnered with local organizations and businesses to manage homelessness.

Similarly, several schools are joining forces with domestic violence shelters to offer emergency housing services to students experiencing abuse.

During these unprecedented times and deep budget cuts, housing insecurity requires creative solutions. Partnerships between colleges and local organizations are critical, and it's important for students to have continued access to services like tutoring, counseling, and campus engagement opportunities.

Designating a school official who can act as a liaison for housing insecure or homeless students can help identify those who are at risk and expedite the process for coming up with a plan of action.

It's encouraging to see colleges develop innovative programs to alleviate housing insecurity — but we need more. We must understand the gravity and extent of students' housing challenges across different institutions. Even more important, colleges must have adequate funding and support to deploy effective solutions.


Feature Image: SDI Productions / E+ / Getty Images