Editor’s Note: A version of this story first appeared in Mile Markers, a twice monthly newsletter from Open Campus about the role of colleges in rural America. You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article to receive future editions in your inbox.
Rural Minnesota students living in ‘ice castles’ to make ends meet. California administrators considered dormitory barges, sending students out to sea. And housing isn’t the only challenge. In my reporting this year, from Georgia and Kansas to West Virginia and Wyoming, I am increasingly seeing young rural residents working multiple jobs to survive in a world that’s getting pricier.
One such example is Alexis Luna, a 20-year-old who lives in a trailer in Driggs, Idaho with her uncle and great grandma. She’s too busy to further her education while trying to afford rent, plus her car payment, insurance, food, and other bills.
She has put off thoughts of attending beautician school, instead working multiple jobs here and across the state border in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. She grew up in San Diego, and would like to move back there.
“There’s more to do. But it’s expensive. It’s gotten crazy there, like everywhere,” she says.
“I know, now, it couldn’t happen. Someday.”
The lack of housing affordability across the nation is gripping headlines, including in the New York Times earlier this month, which highlighted the challenge for younger Americans without mincing words: “Gen Z Can’t Afford the Rent.”
But students, and rural ones in particular, face a unique housing challenge even among Gen Zers — on top of housing shortages and rising rents, they also face limitations that make landlords less likely to house them when presented with other options.
They are less likely to have built up the savings needed to provide the first month of rent and a security deposit upfront. They often don’t have a high credit score or significant credit history, and, if they are full-time students, might not have steady proof of income either.
Those challenges are exacerbated by the fact that most students don’t live in on-campus housing, despite what coming-of-age college flicks might suggest.
The reality is that most “are dependent on the regular housing market, just like anybody else would be,” says Francis Torres, a senior policy analyst and homelessness expert who wrote about the issue recently for the Bipartisan Policy Center.
Rising Costs Everywhere
It doesn’t help that the total cost of tuition, fees, room, and board has increased by 32% at public four-year institutions in the last two decades — rising 2.5 times faster than the median family income, which has risen 13% in that time.
Students who rely on institutional grants and federal loans to pay for their education have watched as that aid has failed to keep pace with growing costs, as BPI notes. Those factors, and others, have made students “particularly vulnerable to the housing crisis, the crisis of housing supply, that we’re currently experiencing,” Torres adds.
“We’ve noticed that the end of that emergency rental assistance on the federal level (or the spending down of it) is inevitably influencing trends in who might end up being unhoused,” Torres says, with those who previously paid rent with that relief now unable to.
What’s more, efforts to reduce housing costs for the general population may exclude students: For instance, students generally aren’t eligible to live in affordable units financed by the Low-Income Housing Tax Credit, which BPC notes is the largest federal program for producing affordable rental homes.
Scholarships and grants are considered income under the Federal Housing Choice Voucher program (formerly known as Section 8 housing). That can price students out of receiving housing aid, even though those funds are often meant to cover their education-related expenses only.
A Tracking Problem
The particular issues students face in finding affordable housing may be receiving less attention than they deserve. That’s in part because the student homeless population is so difficult to quantify: There’s no real dedicated data source for how students might be experiencing affordability issues, Torres says.
The existing studies show the problem could affect between 8% and 14% of postsecondary students — and 48% of the 195,000 students surveyed in 2020 by the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice reported experiencing some form of “housing insecurity.
As of the 2022-23 school year, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has started asking whether students are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
But while that will give the Department of Education one tracking tool, experts will struggle to get proper context for the issue until there are more years of historical data to compare it to.
Even once time has passed, the FAFSA question will likely undercount homelessness because the average student may struggle to identify themselves as homeless.
For instance, is a student sleeping on a friend’s couch for a semester homeless, or a roommate?
Are they homeless if they’re living in their van — a trend that has become increasingly common in parts of California — or are they simply living #vanlife?
So while it’s difficult to track the exact challenge of student homelessness, it’s not hard to see the big picture problem.
“What we do know is that difficulties in being housed have significant impacts on a student’s ability to do well in college, and, ultimately, finish their education,” Torres says.
More Rural Higher Ed News
Amid cuts, what do rural students deserve? This episode of WBUR’s On Point podcast focuses on how rural students might be feeling the broader higher education shift the most, experiencing everything from limited funding to wide cuts in majors, extracurricular programs, and support services.
“If you live in populated places, you get the good options, and if you don’t, you just get things that prepare you to go to work.”Andrew Koricich, executive director of the Alliance for Research on Regional Colleges.
A rural Minnesotan’s path to acceptance. It wasn’t easy growing up gay in the small town of Brownton, an hour west of Minneapolis. However, Connor Syverson found refuge in volleyball, as this Outsports piece recounts. Now the Minnesota State University Moorhead player is turning down a chance to go pro, choosing to coach the sport that he loves instead.
A kind of educational gerrymandering? That’s what Lief Weatherby, director of the Digital Theory Lab at New York University, writes in a piece about the proposed cuts at West Virginia University for the New York Times. The state is proposing cutting 169 faculty positions and more than 30 degree programs from its flagship, including its world languages and literatures programs, as well as graduate programs in mathematics and other arts and pre-professional degrees.
“Sadly, this is not just a local story. Politicians and state officials, often with the help of management consultants, are making liberal arts education scarce in some of the poorest states in the Union.”Lief Weatherby