Take a moment to imagine how difficult it would feel to face the rigors of graduate school, not knowing from one day to the next if you could afford to keep a roof over your head. For almost half the graduate student population — and likely some of you reading this now — you don’t have to imagine, because this is a common daily concern.
Housing insecurity is the technical term describing a state of not having the resources necessary to live in a safe, stable home. And it’s one of the most prominent basic needs-based issues that graduate students face in school. A 2020 study from The Hope Center found that 49% of graduate students face some form of housing insecurity. Students pursuing a master’s degree are often saddled with undergraduate debt, and some have started families — making it even harder to afford basic necessities like housing and food, not to mention having the focus necessary to complete graduate work.
To help prevent housing instability from jeopardizing your ability to earn a master’s degree, we developed the following guide. It starts with providing an overview of the housing struggles you and many other readers may face, and then identifies graduate school resources that are available to help you succeed.
Homelessness in Graduate School: Stats and Terms to Know
To better understand the challenges graduate students face due to housing instability, it’s helpful to first examine some of the basic concepts and statistics. This is because housing problems that graduate students face often fall along a spectrum. Also, understanding how common these issues are for students pursuing master’s degrees can help reduce the stigma and encourage you to seek out the assistance you need.
Just the Statistics
The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice 2020 report on campus basic needs insecurity revealed the following:
- 17% of graduate students are experiencing homelessness, and 39% suffer from food insecurity.
- As noted above, almost half (49%) of graduate students deal with some type of housing insecurity.
- Students who identify as LGBTQIA+ or anything other than cisgender have the highest rates of homelessness and housing insecurity.
- Homelessness and housing insecurity rates are high among racial and ethnic minorities, especially Hispanic/Latinx, Black, Indigenous, American Indian, and Alaskan Native students.
- The biggest reason for students at four-year universities (graduate and undergraduate) to become homeless or face housing insecurity is because of a mortgage or rent increase (15%) or the inability to make a rent or mortgage payment (12%).
Levels of Homelessness
There are multiple definitions of homelessness, but the primary definition comes from federal law — the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. This law defines homelessness as a situation where a person “lack[s] a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence.” This includes having a nighttime residence that’s not meant for human habitation, living in a homeless shelter, and/or living in a temporary or transitional housing.
But there are other types to consider:
- Imminent Risk of Homelessness. This definition applies if someone will lose their residence within two weeks and the individual hasn’t identified a new permanent residence because they lack the resources to do so.
- Homeless Under Other Federal Statutes. This is a catch-all definition that includes unaccompanied youth under 25 (or families with unaccompanied youth under 25) who are defined as homeless under another federal statute, haven’t had a legal interest in permanent housing in the last 60 days, have had to move at least twice in the past 60 days and have circumstances that indicate the person’s current housing situation will continue for the foreseeable future.
- Fleeing/Attempting to Flee Domestic Violence. This type of homelessness is intended to cover situations where a person is trying to escape domestic violence at their permanent residence but has no other residence to go to and lacks the resources to find alternative permanent housing.
One thing to keep in mind is that even if you don’t fit any of the above definitions, you might still suffer similar effects as someone who is experiencing homelessness. That’s why there are other terms, such as housing insecurity and housing instability. These terms are generally interchangeable and refer to housing difficulties, such as trouble paying rent or making mortgage payments, living in an overcrowded home, constantly moving from place to place, and/or spending a significant portion of income (more than 30%) on housing.
15 Resources for Master’s Students Experiencing Homelessness
If you’re experiencing homelessness or facing housing insecurity as a graduate student, there are a variety of housing resources available to you. Let’s look at a few that will help get you started in finding a path toward a more secure and stable place to live, which will help you focus on your graduate studies and earn your degree.
- Year-Round Housing: Because classes may be only in session during the spring and fall semesters, some students struggle to find a place to live when their graduate program isn’t in session. To help serve these students, schools like the University of Dayton will make on-campus housing available all year.
- Housing Vouchers: The University of California, Santa Barbara has several housing assistance programs for students facing housing insecurity. One such program is the housing vouchers program, where students receive a one-time emergency rental assistance grant to help them pay for their on- or off-campus housing arrangements.
- Emergency Housing: If a student experiences a housing issue that could result in homelessness, schools like California State University, Dominguez Hills, will offer short-term housing so that they may find a more secure and permanent place to live.
- Emergency Financial Assistance: Many universities, such as UT Dallas, offer temporary, short-term financial assistance for unforeseen, emergency expenses. This funding can be used to pay rent, utility bills, medical, and similar needs.
- Student Crisis Resources: Knowing students will face personal, financial, housing, medical, and food struggles during their enrollment, Portland State University, through its Dean of Student Life, provides information about a host of resources and programs available to help students deal with their particular struggle.
- HUD Exchange: Part of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, the HUD Exchange lists a variety of homelessness assistance programs based on where you’re located.
- Local Department of Social Services: For those enrolled in a school located in a major city like New York, there will likely be a city- or county-level department that offers a variety of housing assistance programs.
- Mercy Housing:Mercy Housing’s mission is to provide affordable homes to low-income families, individuals, and those with special needs. All types of housing are offered, including transitional housing, rental, and home ownership.
- Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8):Section 8 housing is operated by local public housing agencies (PHA). HUD offers a directory of local PHAs for individuals to search through and apply for housing choice vouchers.
- HCH Grantee Directory:This directory is offered by the National Health Care for the Homeless (HCH) Council, which recognizes that many individuals who have trouble finding housing also struggle to meet their healthcare needs. This directory provides various locations where homeless individuals can find healthcare services.
- Homeless Shelters Directory: This is an independent website managed by users that provides a database of homeless shelters, food banks, soup kitchens, and food pantries across the United States.
- 211.org: This is a network of individuals and agencies that provide confidential and anonymous assistance concerning a variety of services and resources tailored to your local area.
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): Recognizing that mental health and substance abuse issues often coincide with housing struggles, SAMHSA offers a summary of some of its programs that help those who are or may become homeless.
- Shelter App: This app is run by Shelter App, Inc., a non-profit organization that exists to help low-income families and individuals experiencing homelessness find the services they need.
- The National Coalition for the Homeless: This organization consists of a vast nationwide alliance of individuals, faith-based organizations, and community-based agencies that offer assistance and services to help those experiencing homelessness by meeting their basic needs.
- Sublet.com: This site helps match individuals in need of temporary or permanent housing with property owners and renters looking to sublet.
Homelessness in College: Who is Most at Risk?
Anyone can experience homelessness, and it happens for an almost infinite number of reasons. However, not everyone has the same risk. There are certain groups of people who are at higher risk of facing housing instability and/or being unable to find a place to live after experiencing homelessness.
- Racial Minorities: All else being equal, racial minorities tend to be disproportionately affected by housing insecurity and homelessness. The reasons are varied and complex but can relate to housing and employment discrimination. Even though this type of discrimination is illegal, it’s typically subtle and difficult to prove. Even if proof exists, victims of racial discrimination often won’t take legal action because of the high chance of losing the case.
- Low-Income Students: The less money a student has to spend, the more likely they’ll end up experiencing homelessness. Because low-income students have less money to devote to their housing needs, they have less money for other needs as well. This means they’re more susceptible to a single emergency derailing their graduate education because they don’t have a place to sleep, can’t get needed medical care, or go hungry every day.
- Off-Campus Students: Students who live off campus or otherwise outside of a school’s housing program are more susceptible to housing insecurity because schools will work harder than the typical landlord to give a student a place to live. While the vast majority of students will have to pay for their housing, if they suddenly can’t, a school is less likely to evict a student from on-campus housing than a commercial landlord.
- Students with Children: Students without children will often have more income available to pay for housing and other necessities. Additionally, having a child increases the student-parent’s housing requirements. For example, depending on the child’s age, it means the student needs more than one bedroom, which costs more money. Family-friendly, on-campus housing will be less common than a typical dorm arrangement.
- LGBTQIA+ Students: These students have some of the highest rates of experiencing homelessness. One reason for this is because they’re more likely to suffer from familial conflicts due to how they self-identify. This often leads to LGBTQIA+ students having to move out of an otherwise livable home because a parent refuses to accept them. To put this in perspective, 7% of heterosexual university students have experienced homelessness, but 16% of students who identify as LGBTQ have been homeless at some point.
- First-Generation Students: There’s often a correlation between students who are first in their family to go to a college or university and being members of some sort of minority group (like a racial or ethnic minority) and/or being from a lower-income family. Because membership in just one of these groups can increase the chances of someone enduring housing insecurity, it sometimes follows that being a first-generation student will coincide with a higher incidence of experiencing homelessness.
Impact of Homelessness on Graduate Student Performance
Experiencing homelessness can dramatically affect other aspects of your life. When a basic need like housing isn’t met, it’s difficult to worry about less fundamental responsibilities, like getting good grades and attending every class. Let’s discuss some of the specific negative effects experiencing homelessness or dealing with housing insecurity can have if you’re a graduate student.
Can Lead to an Achievement Gap
An “achievement gap” refers to a disparity in academic performance between different groups of students. Students experiencing homelessness may lag behind their housing-secure classmates because they may not be able to devote as much time to classwork as a result of frequent moving and/or finding new places to live. There’s also the emotional toll; instead of thinking about how they’ll work on a project or figuring out an academic concept for one of their classes, they’re instead worrying about having a place to sleep that night.
May Lead to Stress, Anxiety, or Depression
Various studies show a connection between stress, anxiety, and depression with reduced academic performance. Any of these issues can hinder academic motivation in that they may inhibit concentration and memory, making it not only more difficult for students to learn, but also to demonstrate their acquired knowledge to their peers and professors.
May Impact Social and Emotional Wellbeing
Many of the benefits that come with graduate school come from the connections established with professors and classmates. This networking opportunity may be reduced for students experiencing homelessness because they are afraid of having to explain their housing situation to others. This worry may result in students pulling away from social situations or limiting social contact to avoid potentially difficult or embarrassing situations.
May Struggle with Hygiene
Besides not having a reliable place to sleep, homelessness also coincides with not having consistent access to showering and self-care facilities. Without being able to regularly clean and take care of themselves, students may suffer from poor hygiene. This can create anxiety and stress, which can distract from course studies and limit networking opportunities.
Less Likely to Graduate
Research indicates that students at the post-secondary level who are experiencing housing or food insecurity are more likely to drop out of school. This potential consequence also hurts students in the long term, as their future earning and professional growth potential is reduced when they don’t acquire their desired graduate degree.
Sleep May be Disrupted
Students experiencing homelessness may have to stay up later than normal due to time spent finding a temporary place to live. But disruptions to sleep patterns could also be the result of having to frequently sleep in a new location. For some people, not being able to establish an evening routine, along with sleeping in a different place each night (or every few days or weeks), can lead to irregular sleeping patterns and schedules.
Inability to Purchase Textbooks and Other Necessities
Housing insecurity almost always coincides with financial insecurity. Without enough money to have a regular place to live, a student may also lack the money to purchase the necessary school supplies, equipment, and textbooks necessary for their classes. And without a permanent mailing address, it may be more difficult to find employment to earn money to pay for these academic necessities.
May Experience Hunger
If a student has housing insecurity, it’s also common for them to experience food insecurity. Inadequate nutrition can limit academic performance because the brain isn’t getting the nutrients it needs to effectively learn. Being constantly hungry can also have a psychological effect by creating additional stress, anxiety, and reduced motivation to study.
What Can Colleges and Universities Do to Help?
Colleges and universities want their students to excel and will work hard to support their enrollment. This means they also often provide assistance and programs to prevent things that could hinder a student’s ability to do their best — such as homelessness and housing instability — in their students’ chosen programs of study. Here are some ways they can help.
- Evaluate the need. Before a university can help the population of students experiencing homelessness, it needs to first find out how many students are facing housing insecurity of any kind. The school can then assess why these housing challenges exist. For instance, could there be a housing shortage off-campus, or is the school accepting a wider range of students — which includes more lower-income applicants?
- Adjust accessibility to housing. Students sometimes face homelessness because access to on-campus housing is limited to times when school is in session. Even if a student is taking classes throughout the year, they may still be prohibited from living on campus during extended breaks, such as winter and spring break. By allowing students to live on campus year-round, schools can reduce the potential for housing insecurity.
- Create a homelessness support program. Students experiencing homelessness might not know where to go for help or what to expect when they ask for help. By establishing a homelessness support program, schools will create a more consistent and formal process by which students can receive housing assistance. Having a formal program can also make it easier for schools to seek funding, as they can show accountability to potential donors.
- Establish an on-campus food pantry. If a student is dealing with housing insecurity, chances are high they’re also dealing with food insecurity. Therefore, one way schools can indirectly help students experiencing homelessness is by creating an on-campus food pantry. By alleviating the worry about food, students will have an easier time focusing on their classwork and can apply any extra money toward housing.
- Help students apply for assistance. Applying for any type of aid can be complicated or stigmatizing. Schools can help students experiencing homelessness or hunger by guiding them through the assistance process. This includes having individuals available to answer questions and walk students through the application procedures.
- Target financial instability. When a student faces housing instability, that student is often struggling financially. So they’re not just facing difficulties with paying their rent or mortgage, but also paying for utilities, tuition, food, and other necessary expenses. By making school more financially accessible, such as through lower tuition or more affordable room and board, students will have more money to spend on other needs.
- Make resources available to all students. Schools can offer an easy-to-navigate, intuitive website that outlines the housing resources available. This type of website lets students gather information anonymously and will list not just what’s available from the school, but what’s available off-campus — whether it’s assistance from a local church or a national non-profit. The school can also take other steps to make students aware of the help available, such as flyers on campus, promotional materials, emails, and social media campaigns.
Interview with an Expert on Student Homelessness
Carson Lang is the co-founder and COO of Test Prep Insight — a test preparation company with an emphasis on graduate school exams, such as the GRE and GMAT. He works with college students every day who are getting ready for grad school.
Q. What sort of problems have you seen for students experiencing homelessness that go beyond the lack of shelter?
Homelessness among students causes a number of issues well beyond the obvious lack of shelter. In my experience, the negative impact on a student’s mental health is one of the worst issues. Homeless college and grad students have much higher levels of anxiety than peers with proper housing. They tend to feel insecure, anxious, and tense, which can negatively impact their learning.
Moreover, homeless students tend to have poorer physical health than their peers, as they have weaker access to nutritional food. Most need to eat processed foods, as they have nowhere to cook fresh food.
Landing internships can also be an issue during college and grad school, as students have no home address to list for tax purposes or place to launder business attire.
Finally, homelessness can also impact a student’s ability to network and join clubs on campus. It is much harder to maintain social circles and develop a burgeoning professional network when you’re homeless.
Q. What was your experience in grad school as an English language learner?
Going through grad school as an English language learner was definitely interesting because I did my Ph.D. in Spanish and Portuguese languages and cultures. So I was primarily writing in Spanish. However, when you submit articles, they have to be in English. And the ways in which Spanish writers think and write are structurally different from the ways that English speakers write. For example, in English, we usually have a thesis then we see the argument through with evidence and examples. In Spanish and Portuguese, we start with an idea and take a circular path to get to the argument, then we end with a question about how this contributes to the field. I think that is what I found the hardest in terms of writing as a grad student.
The other thing that was really hard was vocabulary. Because while I had an English vocabulary, I would also make up words that I thought could be applied. Then my professors would tell me this word doesn’t exist. My professors would tell me that I needed more language to make my points clear. Psychologically, it was hard because I felt like I wasn’t enough no matter how I did things.
Q. Have any students devised innovative solutions that others experiencing homelessness might be able to emulate?
Anecdotally, I know of one student who, when faced with the prospect of homelessness after his freshman year, volunteered to be a resident assistant (RA) in the dorms his sophomore year. RA’s receive free room and board in exchange for monitoring the dorm floor on which they live. It does bring extra responsibility, but the free housing changed his life.
Q. How would you recommend that a student talk with admissions or other offices about their housing situation? Is it something that should be addressed from the start? How do they go about opening that conversation?
Students with housing insecurity shouldn’t be afraid to address such issues openly with admissions staff. Many universities offer programs and fee waivers to help students in such situations. The cost of room and board can be added to student loan tabs, there are rent subsidies, waivers of fees at the campus cafeteria, and other programs established with the aim of helping students avoid homelessness.
My best advice is to be direct and open with admissions counselors. Tell them about your financial situation, and ask what programs exist to help.
Q. What resources have proven to be surprisingly helpful for students experiencing housing insecurity?
If being a resident assistant doesn’t pan out, I would suggest checking out public housing. Contact the local housing authority serving your area and see if there is any availability in their no- or low-income housing units. You may be able to get an off-campus apartment at a greatly reduced rate.
Though a tough pill to swallow, if you’re really in a bind, there are also some federal foster programs that offer financial assistance to college-aged young adults. Some of these programs serve students who are no longer eligible for the foster care system based on age.
You can also try surfing Craigslist for temporary housing. Oftentimes, other students will sublet a room for a cheap price for short periods. I have seen this multiple times. A student will need to take a semester off for one reason or another (such as caring for a parent, traveling, or studying abroad), but they don’t want to give up their room. Instead, they’ll rent it for a fraction of the price. Check Craigslist for these cheap opportunities.
If all else fails, consider buying an older model RV. Many campuses offer overnight parking, and you can essentially live in your RV. It may not be as comfortable as traditional housing, but oftentimes dorm rooms are not much better than the inside of an RV.
Q. What are some of the best ways schools can step up to help students experiencing homelessness?
Universities need to recognize the pervasiveness of housing insecurity among students and start funding solutions. Universities drop millions every year on tenured professors’ salaries, research, new administrative buildings, sports programs, and alumni events, but they give little attention to the homeless among their student body. It would be nice to see them redirect some of these funds into building free housing for students who are at risk.