Are there Invisible Students on Your Campus?

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Signs of homelessness on college campuses can be easy to miss. Students sleeping in library reading nooks, vehicles in student parking lots that rarely change location, backpacks bulging with a student’s possessions, youth bringing plastic baggies to events serving food (to collect leftovers)…  

Food insecurity is the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner. The most extreme form is often accompanied with physiological sensations of hunger.

Homelessness means that a person is without a place to live, often residing in a shelter, an automobile, an abandoned building or outside, while housing insecurity includes a broader set of challenges such as the inability to pay rent or utilities or the need to move frequently.

All these challenges affect students, and the results this year suggest that it is more common to endure them during college than to have all of one’s needs met.

Housing and food insecurity are not new issues on college campuses. The Wisconsin Hope Lab, a research group focusing on issues of postsecondary student equity, found in its 2018 “Still Hungry and Homeless in College” survey of 43,000 students, at 66 institutions, that 36 percent of four-year college students were food insecure in the 30 days preceding the survey, with that figure being 42 percent for community college students. Similarly, 36 percent of university students said they were housing insecure and 9 percent said they were homeless, while 46 percent of community college students cited housing insecurity and 12 percent said they were homeless.

As the State Coordinator for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth at the Michigan Department of Education (MDE), my work focuses on supporting public schools in removing barriers to education for pre-K through 12th grade students, who are experiencing homelessness in order to enhance school success, and to help them reach beyond to postsecondary education. We do this through 34 regional McKinney-Vento Homeless Education Grants, encompassing all counties and intermediate school districts in the state, and nearly 98 percent of all public school districts.  Regional coordinators work with school district Homeless Liaisons to identify students experiencing homelessness, provide school supplies, transportation, help with obtaining school, health and other important records, academic support and tutoring, school meals and snacks, clothing, shoes, under and outer wear, school uniforms, counseling and referrals for many more community services to meet the family’s and students’ unique needs.  Every public school district is required to designate a staff member to identify and serve students experiencing homelessness. 

Patricia Gentile, president of North Shore Community College in Denvers, MA, told the Education Dive, 

“Addressing those emergency needs beyond tuition and fee support is what we are going to have to do to make sure our students enroll and complete.”

“This is going to impact our workforce over time. This is not a charitable thing; it’s an economic thing.”

After high school graduation (or GED completion), however, there is no such mandate for postsecondary institutions to designate staff to support such students. Fourteen State Education Agencies (SEAs) - including Michigan - have developed Higher Education Networks, consisting of Single Points of Contact (SPOCS) - leaders in the financial aid offices at postsecondary institutions, to identify and support college students experiencing hunger and homelessness. These programs provide training and resources for SPOCs to increase the educational attainment of the most vulnerable college students.






What can YOU do to support these vulnerable students on your campus?

  1. Observe and collect data – Develop and distribute a survey for all students to learn the extent of food and housing insecurity among your students and on your campus. Check the WI HOPE Lab’s annotated list of these studies for examples.
  2. Develop a resource network – Identify an appropriate staff member to serve as a Single Point of Contact (SPOC) for your institution and/or campuses. Join the SEA’s Higher Education Network for Homeless and Foster Youth. Work with the SEA’s Homeless Education Coordinator to identify state, regional and local resources for food and housing support.
  3. Request training for faculty and staff about the extent of the problem, the impact of these issues on students, and ways to support students experiencing these struggles. This is available through the SEA’s State Homeless Education Coordinator and national organizations. (See Resource List at end of this article.)
  4. Start with the EASY STEPS – Start a food pantry on campus with donations from administrators, faculty, and staff. Make campus housing available during the semester and holiday breaks for students in need (not just international or out of state students). Make community resources and contact broadly available on campus. Strengthen relationships with student organizations.
  5. Destigmatize requests for help – Review campus, student and building policies and procedures to determine if any pose barriers to students who are experiencing food or housing insecurity. Communicate publicly across campus, online and through staff and faculty of the incidence of such issues on your campus, the availability of the resources and how students can access them and refer others to them.

Resources on Hunger and Homelessness for Postsecondary Insitutions 

Did You Know?


Author: Pam Kies-Lowe, State Coordinator for Homeless Education
Michigan Department of Education, Office of Educational Supports
Posted: Aug. 23, 2018

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