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Exploring the Needs of Homeless College Students

Over the past few decades, higher education’s cost has skyrocketed, making attaining a four-year degree a financial burden to some people (Sobel, 2013). While the idea of being a struggling college student may seem like a rite of passage, college students around the country hold many responsibilities, which can prove to be very stressful and possibly affect one’s ability to complete university (Dubick, Mathews, & Cady, 2016; Ross-Gordon, 2011). Although there is an extensive literature concerning college experience for traditional students, there are gaps in research on homeless students’ college experience. Students who are homeless during their time in college may fall under the category of non-traditional college students. Students classified as non-traditional have obligations that can affect their daily lives and infringe on the ability to complete college (Clark, 2012). Some of these responsibilities include having dependents, holding a full-time employment position, being financially autonomous, transitioning in and out of foster care, or not having a high school diploma. (Shillingford&Karlin, 2013). Studies on non-traditional college students show that they are at an increased risk of dropping out of college due to life pressures and extenuating circumstances (Shillingford&Karlin, 2013; Wyatt, 2011). Those in the non-traditional category may be impacted by food insecurity, housing insecurity, and homelessness. Without the adequate resources and support to meet their basic needs, college students experiencing homelessness may find themselves unable to navigate the path to graduation.

Research shows that there are between 1.5 million to 3 million homeless youth in the country (National Runaway Switchboard, 2010). FAFSA data estimates that in 2012 there were approximately 58,000 homeless students in colleges across the United States (Gross, 2013). With the cost of college steadily increasing, these numbers can continuously rise at an alarming rate. The United States government has a criterion determining who is homeless through the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (U.S-DHUD). A strict criterion is used to determine who qualifies for additional services, including their immigration status, among others. Forced to keep up with the rising cost of college tuition, some college students face the dilemma of prioritizing education over having a roof over their heads when they are ineligible to receive supplemental financial support. Extra support funds enable students to cater to their basic college requirements and motivate them toward successfully completing their college education. In some areas, gentrification could cause individuals and families to become homeless due to the rise in housing costs. Possible reasons college students may be ineligible for supplemental support include not being a United States citizen, poor academic performance below a 2.0 GPA, or having a criminal conviction on record (United States Department of Education, 2020). Berk& McDonald (2010) studied homeless crime in Los Angeles County in efforts to support a Safer Cities Initiative through strategic policing. The most common crime among homeless individuals includes public intoxication, public urination, and loitering (Berk& MacDonald, 2010).

Homelessness is prevalent in all age groups, genders, and races (USA Department of Health & Human Services, 2018). The United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) has defined homeless as “an individual who lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” who dwells in a “supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations” or “a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, regular sleeping accommodation for humans” (HUD, 2010). The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act defines homeless children and youth as “individuals who lack a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” (National Center for Homeless Education, 2012, p.6).

Individuals experiencing homelessness inevitably endure everyday difficulties because their basic need for shelter is not met. Homelessness comes in many forms and varies between different factors. These factors may include the duration of time without a home and how frequently an individual may become homeless.

Research shows there is a growing interest in the topic of homelessness amongst college students; however, there has been little research aimed at addressing this population’s needs. To understand and define the phenomenon of homelessness in college, we must extend the scope of this research to involve factors that contribute to homelessness. This includes exploring how homelessness can be a byproduct of unequal social structures and capital gain (Clapham, 2013).


The USA-DHUD defines homelessness as a situation of an individual, community, family, etc., without stable, permanent, appropriate, or safe housing, and lacks the immediate prospects of acquiring it. Homelessness can occur when an individual finds themselves in poverty. Poverty may also be inherited through family status. Corcoran (1995) suggested that the economic standing of parents can predict a child’s future attainment. Therefore, if a child grows up poor and homeless, they are potentially more likely to be poor and homeless as adults. Since educational attainment is a high predictor of earnings (Julian, 2012), there is a positive relationship between educational attainment and income. Even those who have completed some college have earned more than those completing only a high school degree (2017 Population Survey: Annual Social and Economic (ASEC) Supplement Survey from the United States Bureau of the Census). Low levels of educational attainment can be a macro cause of homelessness. Those experiencing chronic homelessness (mostly due to poverty) are still able to attend higher education institutions (Silva et al., 2015) because their lack of stable housing does not dictate their ability to learn. However, the continuing rising cost of higher education may also prove to be a roadblock. Duncan (2013) states that education is the key to eliminating gender inequality, reducing poverty, creating a sustainable planet, preventing needless deaths and illness, and fostering peace. And in a knowledge economy, education is the new currency by which nations maintain economic competitiveness and global prosperity.”

Food Insecurity

With the cost of college tuition on the rise and the availability of affordable housing steadily decreasing, some students’ problem is accessibility to food and nourishment. Food insecurity is defined as “the limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, or the ability to acquire such foods in a socially acceptable manner” (Goldrick-Rab, Richardson, & Hernandez, 2017, p. 3). There seems to be more research on food insecurity and homelessness amongst students than assisting those experiencing these difficulties (Cady, 2014; Nazmi et al., 2018). Numerous studies verify the prevalence of food insecurity on college campuses, even approximating it at values anywhere between 27 and 67 percent. (Chaparro, Zaghloul, Holck, & Dobbs, 2009; Dubick et al., 2016; Goldrick-Rab, Broton, &Elensberg, 2015; Goldrick-Rab et al., 2017; Mirabitur, Peterson, Rathz, Matlen, & Kasper, 2016; Payne-Sturges, Tjaden, Caldeira, Vincent, &Arria, 2018). While this seems to be a sizeable range, many factors contribute to how high or low these values can be, such as geographic location or university background. In 2017, an in-depth analysis was conducted, revealing that food insecurity is shared among 42 percent of college students (Bruening, M., Argo, K., Payne-Sturges, D., &Laska, M. N. (2017). Studies have found that groups of students affected include disabled, have been in foster care with no permanent home, and those who are first-generation students (Goldrick-Rab et al., 2017; Marotoet al.,2015). Individuals belonging to these groups do not always have the resources or support group to assist them in navigating college.

Food insecurity may directly impact student success. With food insecurity affecting student presence on campus (Wood et al. 2016), it has been shown that students experiencing food insecurity perform poorly in academics than students on campus who do not experience food insecurity. Students experiencing food insecurity were not as concerned with their courses, were less attentive in classes, and were less often on track with their academic goals and objectives than students who were unaffected by food insecurity (Dubick et al., 2016). Seventy-five percent of these students were also awarded some sort of financial aid, and forty-three percent were enrolled in a meal plan. Students with food insecurity are also likely to experience housing insecurity (Payne-Sturges et al., 2018).

Housing Insecurity

An individual’s housing status is a basic need that can affect their mental and physical health. Those experiencing housing insecurities have been shown to have declining mental and physical health over time (Tsai, 2015; Vásquez-Vera et al., 2017). Housing insecurity can be the inability to afford housing, the spending of more than half of earned income on housing, or low-quality living standards such as unsafe housing or having to live with friends or family (Cox, Rodnyansky, Henwood, & Wenzel, 2017; Kushel, Gupta, Gee, & Haas, 2006; Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion).

Because there is no system to identify college students experiencing housing insecurity, it is challenging to find out who is being directly affected. Universities are required to provide programs to assist those with mental and physical health     ` issues as well as offer academic support, but there is little evidence of helping those with housing insecurity (Paden, 2012). Research reveals that an estimated 31-52% of students experience housing insecurities (Cruchfield et al., 2016; Goldrick-Rab et al., 2015, 2017; Tsui et al., 2011; Wood et al., 2016). In addition, according to recent data released by the Department of Justice, over 1.7 million teenagers experience homelessness within the USA per annum. However, this number is considered very low given that many students decline to share details of their living conditions.

Housing insecurity was more likely to affect individuals within minority groups. In a 2015 survey of over 4,000 community college students, approximately 52% of the African American students who responded faced housing insecurities. This is a huge gap compared to the White responding students, who revealed a rate of about 35% (Goldrick-Rab et al., 2015). This survey’s overall responses indicated that 64% of the students experiencing food insecurity also reported undergoing housing insecurity during their education. Therefore, there seems to be a strong correlation between food and housing insecurities as those experiencing either are likely to experience the other.

For a college student, homelessness manifests itself in multiple ways. For instance, some students are living on the streets, and others are living in their cars. Some may couch surf and find themselves frequently transient without a permanent place to reside. Others may secure temporary shelter in the residence halls of the college during the academic year. Lee, Tyler, and Wright (2010) developed criteria for conceptualizing homelessness. To understand possible causes of college homelessness, the conceptual model discussed by Lee et al. (2010) organizes, assesses, and analyzes micro and macro characteristics levels that influence homeless individuals.

The macro-levels include the qualities of society’s organization, including the unequal distribution of income, the country’s economic state, and human welfare (Lee et al. 2010). Historically, homelessness has increased by the lack of affordable housing in societies with low employment opportunities. This increase is supported by the National Alliance’s statistics to end homelessness, which held that as of 2013, those in the United States with the lowest 20% of income who had houses spent about87% of their earnings on housing (National Alliance to End Homelessness 2013). This increased spending on housing also increases the risk of the bottom 20% becoming homeless. Thus, the low-income rate, unequal distribution of wealth, low employment rate, and a country’s diminishing economic growth, among others, increases the rate of homeless among a country’s population.

Compared to the macro-levels, the micro-level predictors to poverty include individual life events or personal characteristics. Examples include underlying psychological conditions, drug abuse, physical or psychological torture, neglect as a child, and domestic violence, among others (Wright &Mustaine, 2010). There is an undeniable association between the above factors with homelessness. For instance, Statistics Canada (2016) approximates that domestic/family violence victimizes more than 237 individuals per 100,000 people. This violence can force individuals, including teenagers, to abandon their homes without proper support, resulting in homelessness.

When macro and micro predicators to homelessness are coupled, low-income earners may find themselves experiencing extreme stress and hardship. However, buffers that soften the effects of the micro and macro predictors of homelessness may include having a supportive family, friends, and an effective social service program (Lee et al. 2010). Although variations exist between the experiences of homeless students, this study provides a social and developmental perspective of homeless college students and examines factors that may be associated with successfully navigating college. This dissertation will aim to (a) examine the fundamental, psychological, and fulfillment needs of homeless college students attending a 4-year institution; (b) explore student accessibility of on-campus and off-campus resources that best meet these needs.


Chapter 2: Literature Review

This research focuses on exploring homeless college students’ experiences to find the best ways to champion their success throughout college. The existing literature will be reviewed on homeless college students, their living situations, educational experiences, and explore the challenges that they face. It is important to note that this research intends to offer workable solutions that alleviate homeless college students’ plight—as such, understanding the plight of the students is a key to finding solutions that work to support them during their college experience.

Homelessness and Education

Studies suggest that some students do not begin college as homeless but find themselves homeless when trying to escape domestic violence, losing their job, or lack of support from parents to pay their college fees (Berg-Cross & Green, 2009; Paden 2012). Generally, a combination of various factors, including the ever increasing tuition fee, lack of adequate financial help packages to cater to their food, fuel, and student care, in addition to inadequate affordable houses, has increased homelessness among college students (Jones, 2021). Moreover, substance abuse is a leading cause of homelessness among college students.  Research indicates that substance abuse precedent the homeless, while in other cases, it is a behavior that is picked up during life in the streets, perhaps as a coping mechanism. Rachel et al. (2016) approximate that about 5.4 million college students had drunk alcohol in the past month, with 3.5 million of the identified this populating engaging in spree drink, and about   1.2 million students engaging in heavy alcohol intake. Also, about 2.0 million students used an illicit drug in the past month. Generally, the use of drugs can result in disorientation, psychosis, and lack of financial planning, resulting in homelessness among students. Also, substance abuse is the leading cause of domestic violence in the USA, accounting for about 17% percent of all domestic violence cases in the country, resulting in homelessness.

Consider an international student attending college in the United States and unable to return home after their academic year is completed due to lack of funds. How about students attending institutions that do not offer year-round housing outside of the fall and spring semesters? This specific population of students is steadily increasing across the country, especially during unforeseen circumstances (National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth [NAEHCY], 2014; Paden, 2012).

The contemporary global coronavirus pandemic has resulted in an enormous number of social inequalities across the USA as the country contends with unemployment issues caused influenced by the pandemic, housing insecurity remains a major challenge among college students. The covid 19 pandemic has transformed the higher education orientation, forcing universities and colleges to establish and implement difficult decisions, including indefinitely closing campuses temporarily and operate remotely to tom protect the health of students, staffs, and faculties, and also curb the spread of the virus (Stewart and Tatum, 2021).  Many universities’ and colleges’ operational plans include the closure of residence halls as well as other housing in the campuses, however, student housing is not only space for students to connect with others, but it is also a safe haven and provides critical resources for needy students, in addition to offering housing security.

In the course of the pandemic, some colleges and universities no longer offered on-campus housing, leaving those who relied on their dormitories anxious and scrambling to find alternatives. For instance, Marcy Stidum (director of Campus Awareness, Resource, and Empowerment (CARE) Services at Kennesaw State University in Georgia) describes how the pandemic affected her campus life was affected when residence halls were shut down due to stay-at-home orders. “The initial measures- including the closure of the campus residence hall, to curb the pandemic affected students who had nowhere to go and were completely homeless, including international students. These students also include the LGBT community who could not go home. Our domestic violence and family violence community and our high school students were also left homeless due to the pandemic. (Stewart, 2020).

In the initial stages of the pandemic, universities and colleges abruptly closed their facilities, forcing students to out of campus residences within a few days of notice (Graham, 2021). This closure left many students with limited options, with some adopting to live with their friends while others were unable to return home (Stewart and Tatum, 2021) safely.  When campuses make decisions to temporarily shut down their facilities, including the closure of housing and dining facilities, it can severely affect students who solely depend on such facilities’ services and opportunities for survival (Graham, 2021). These effects include homelessness, which significantly affects a student’s quality of life and ability to perform academically.

Moreover, the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice 2019 report indicates that about 3 in 5 students experienced homelessness in 2018. About half of the students at two-year higher education facilities experienced food insecurity in the last 30 days. Besides, 18 and 14 percent of two-year and four-year college students experienced homelessness in the same period, respectively (Stewart and Tatum, 2021). These predicaments can influence a student’s life, including being subjected to immoral activities like drug abuse and juvenile crimes.

According to Paden (2012), students continue to benefit from facilities offered on campus (the library to study and the gym to shower) but end up couch-surfing or living in their car during their time at college. Additionally, studies have shown that homeless students feel isolated from their peers, affecting their ability to form relationships and have healthy social interactions (Molina, 2000; Smith, 2008).

The negative connotations and generalizations of homelessness may leave one nervous and afraid to seek help (Frick, 2015). Homelessness is a major factor affecting students’ mental and physical health as well as their academic success. (The National Center for Homeless Education, 2015). A home provides a safe space for one to complete course work and study; the inability to secure consistent housing can have a catastrophic effect.

Despite there being federal laws and state legislation directed towards student homelessness, the support is limited. The Department of Education made changes to the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) in 2016 to support homeless youth’s educational rights. However, it was not until 2007 that the College Cost Reduction and Access Act was passed, allowing homeless youth to identify as financially liberated from their parents. The College Cost Reeducation and Access Act of 2007 and the Higher Education Education Opportunity Act of 2008 allowed homeless youth who do not have parental information to fill out a FAFSA in efforts to promote attending college. However, the number of applicants who identify as homeless has been increasing. Not all homeless students submit a FAFSA application. Only about 1 percent of students in 2016-17 who applied for FAFSA identified as homeless. This is about 32.7 thousand students from a total of 18.7 million applicants (Munro, 2011; National Center for Homeless Education, 2018).

Homelessness rates in both community colleges and 4-year institutions seem to range between 5 and 14 percent. (Crutchfield et al., 2016; Dubick et al., 2016; Goldrick-Rab et al., 2015; Goldrick-Rab et al., 2017). Among these homeless students, it was found that African Americans were more likely to experience homelessness in college. An 18% rate of homelessness for students of color compared to 11% percent of White students. (Goldrick-Rab et al., 2015). Interviewed students at Northern California community college explained that it’s difficult to stay enrolled in school with day to day challenges while homeless. They lack the essential resources to perform well academically and worry about basic needs such as showering and clean clothes. Overall, their attitude was positive because they believe education is a solution to their problems and a brighter future (despite experiencing stressful times as a homeless student) (Hallett, R. E., &Freas, A., 2018).

The high cost associated with attending college and university may contribute to the likelihood of some students becoming homeless (especially those who are independent). Bindle (2014) stated, “It is widely accepted that the economic resources of the parent play a huge role in determining the attainments of their children as adults” Therefore, a student with parents who are unable or unwilling to cover finances or cost of living may be susceptible to experiencing homelessness during their education in college.

Educational attainment is the strongest factor in predicting one’s earnings (Julian, 2012). The last United States Census supports the notion that college degree attainment significantly and positively influences an individual’s income (Kominski, 2011). Statistically speaking, those who complete a college degree are estimated to earn more than $20,000 a year compared to those who only hold a high school diploma. Lower levels of education embody both macro and micro causes of homelessness. Other factors include the high cost of living and not being able to afford decent housing.

A recent spotlight concerning homelessness and poverty among residents in Baltimore, Los Angeles, and other significant cities indicates an increasingly urban America problem: the growing cost of housing. While many factors are acknowledged to result in economic growth and the resulting high cost of living, economists state that the fundamental drivers of the growing prices of houses include the ever-increasing rental rates and high cost of land, and increased legal restrictions (Maktidis, 2021). While these legal restrictions help the incumbent contain increasing the cost of renting houses, as explained the recent New Yolk lawmakers, they significantly constrain housing supply and impact an area’s health and economic competitiveness in the long run. Nevertheless, many college students cannot own houses, besides the ability to bear the high cost of renting houses (Graham, 2021). As a result, with limited finances, students are compromised to choose between quality housing and the need to fulfill their basic need for food. The decision to remain homeless at the cost of the latter is often rationale.

Non-traditional Students and College

Despite there being lack of research on homeless college students, research on other marginalized student populations is more prevalent. These marginalized populations are commonly referred to as non-traditional students. The phrase non-traditional college students refer to a vast group of students who share different experiences than their traditional counterparts. While the literature on non-traditional students does not focus exclusively on homelessness, it may be easy to identify homeless students through the criteria by which non-traditional students are classified.

The research on non-traditional college students began after the Second World War when the first group of veterans began attending college (Philibert, 2005). Traditional students are defined as those between 18 and 25 years and are full-time students who live on campus (Clark, 2012: Gilardi&Gugliemeti, 2011). The criteria for determining non-traditional students are broader but generally follow those above 25 years of age and attend college part-time. The second definition of non-traditional students focuses on the student’s background, and this definition includes first-generation college students, a student who is employed full-time, financially independent, or those who are re-enrolling after a long period of time,    (Gillardi&Guglietemi,  2011). The third criteria include factors that may inhibit students’ school attendance (Clark, 2012).

Further research conducted in 1996 by Horn and Caroll created a range that defined students as minimally, moderately, or highly non-traditional based on the criterion of the number of non-traditional characteristics inherent for each student. The characteristics including delayed enrollment, part-time attendance for at least part of the year, full-time work while enrolled, and financial independence based on the financial aid systems or FAFSA. The same criteria implemented by Horn continues to be used to research non-traditional students (Horn &Caroll, 1996).

Today’s reality is that the rate at which non-traditional college students enroll in college is higher than that of traditional college students (Gillardi&Guglielmetti 2011). This trend has prompted research on non-traditional students’ college experiences. Generally, and due to their age and responsibilities, non-traditional students have and face more stressors in their lives and experience conflicts that have the possibility of diverting their attention from school (Forbus, Newbold& Mehta 2010). Naturally, non-traditional college students find themselves disengaged from college, and this disengagement from their environment and peers, when coupled with other stressors, may lead these students to stop attending classes or  (Zekke& Leach, 2010).

However, it is imperative to note that while non-traditional students face a higher risk of not completing their degree because of the life pressures that they face, research indicates that they are more motivated to complete college than traditional college students (Shillingford&Karlin, 2013).  The most interesting trend of non-traditional students is that while families qualify to be a source of stress, it is equally a motivating factor for doing well academically. Wilsey (2013) stated, “although much research on the family lives of adult college students focuses on families as additional stressors, it is equally important to note and appreciate that families serve as a significant source of motivation” p.209). While traditional students may not have these stressors, the same stressors become a motivation that promotes higher grades than traditional students. This is reiterated by Forbus et al. (2010), who found that “while non-traditional students have to strike the perfect work-school-life balance and deal with more stressors than traditional students, they also score higher grades measured by GPA.”

College Homelessness and Retention

One of the most evident challenges that homeless college students face is the absence of a safe place to call home. The lack of this safe and secure space is a major obstruction to their learning. As Maslow (1943) described, “without having our most basic needs, we cannot achieve a higher level of thinking.” Even if a student is able to secure a safe space to reside in, their education may be hindered by the financial pressure of working to pay for that living arrangement and other basic needs like food and hygiene. Students may tend to avoid classes due to fear of victimization based on their hygiene (Ammerman et al. 2004). Additionally, homeless college students are faced with another challenge of affording stable and reliable means of transportation. Even if the student owns a vehicle, covering associated costs with the vehicle may prove to be out of reach when attaining a degree is needed to make a stable income to afford the cost of living (National Center for Homeless Education, 2012).

It is equally important to investigate how college students find themselves homeless. Some of the students may have been exposed to chronic homelessness, while others are homeless for the first time. The strongest factor associated with becoming homeless is the increased struggle of funding their tuition costs (Paden, 2012)

Students who make temporary arrangements or ‘couch surf’ and lack consistent and stable housing can still be classified as homeless. Bozick (2007) found that living arrangements play an instrumental role in shaping the overall college experience quality. The increasing cost of housing can make it hard to afford to pay for individual spaces, requiring a roommate to save on cost. This can also occur in instances where families are forced to squeeze in a limited space. Faced with the dilemma of living in tight spaces, students are forced to find ways of living with the new challenges of limited privacy (Balder, 2004). Because of this, some students are forced to rely on the hospitality of their fellow students and relatives who provide them with a roof over their heads. This arrangement may impact the adjustment to college life.

In the United States, the FAFSA provides assistance based on financial need to those enrolled in college. The application for a FAFSA requires dependent and independent students to provide information about their income, parental income, and social security numbers. This information may not be easy to obtain. The past requirement to provide this information presented a major setback to homeless students who may have had a hard time locating their parents’ information. Because of this financial barrier, students are forced to consider the option of revealing their status as a homeless college student on the FAFSA report in order to qualify for a waiver of independent status (Hallet, 2010). A student may choose to file as independent, but this will also limit their ability to get approved for loans to cover tuition and housing (National Center For Homeless Education, 2012).

Most students attending college are likely to be working a part-time job between coursework. For those who are unable to cover the cost of tuition and housing, work may prove to be providing financial value than attending class and staying in school (National Center for Homeless Education, 2012). Students struggling to fund their college experience may also find themselves unable to eat regularly and possibly experience food insecurity.  Finding ways to support these students requires promoting services and adopting a multi-faceted approach to learning about this population’s needs (Shore, 2018).

Students experiencing homelessness have additional difficulty finding resources and services tailored to their needs (Stockamp, 2014). This difficulty stems from services being inaccessible or rarely advertised as a possible option. It is common that students are not aware of the means and ways of accessing such help on a campus (National Center For Homeless Education, 2012). Homeless students are more likely to accept support only when they need it (Green, 2017). This may be attached to stigmas about being homeless. Barriers like stigmas, accessibility, and lack of comfort can impede the continuation of their education. These students can struggle to live a balanced life and manage their ability to complete coursework.

The stigma attached to being homeless obstructs some attempts at tracking and connecting with this population. This can be a challenge faced by higher education institutions. The City University of New York (CUNY) conducted a campus-wide survey and found that 1 percent of their student population lived in shelters, and 42 percent of the population admitted to experiencing housing insecurity in the previous academic year (Tsui et al., 2011). This kind of campus outreach helps an institution to understand the needs of their specific student body and the types of services they can provide.

Social Capital & Accessibility

Even though campus support programs and statewide networks have grown exponentially, there is limited research on these programs’ impact on student outcomes. In their study of campus support programs for young adults who have aged out of foster care, Dworsky and Perez (2009) found that the wide variation among programs in the US presents a major issue when it comes to evaluating student outcomes. Many programs analyzed in the study displayed similar obstacles, which include student recruitment and identification, lack of preparedness by the student for their college-level assignments, and the feasibility of these types of programs that provide extensive social capital to students to retain them.

Dworsky and Perez (2009) use social capital theory to examine homeless and foster youth’s college experience. The social capital theory’s primary idea is that benefits and resources in life can be secured through relationships and membership in one’s social networks (Hauberer, 2011; Portes, 1998). As is shown in recent research, social capital’s power lies in opportunities and information afforded a person through their connections. Relationships may affect economic outcomes due to the transmission of information within one’s social network.

Granovetter’s (1973) research on the strength of unstable connections links small interactions to larger-scale patterns. Granovetter distinguishes between close bonds, which develop through a high-degree of time, emotional enthusiasm, and rapport, versus fragile bonds, which supply opportunities, disseminate information, and authority by connecting people who are foreign to one’s close social network. These fragile bonds may be with a student’s academic advisor, counseling services, or residence life department on a college campus.

Briggs (1998) scrutinizes the importance of social support and leverage, considered the “two-sided treasure chest of social capital” (p.206). Social support is the reliance on the kindness and helpfulness of those in your life. Like Granovetter’s theory of close bonds, Brigg’s social support is derived from friends and family. Economically disadvantaged students may heavily rely on social support to meet basic needs. College personnel can serve as an important resource during times of financial hardship, but dense support networks are often lacking or unavailable to communities who need them the most (homeless students). In a study of low-income African American and Latino adolescents, Briggs (1998) found that one-third of the youth in the study could not name a reliable emergency contact in a time of need.

The alternative form of social capital is social leverage, which establishes connections to information, new people, and opportunities to get one ahead in life. Social leverage is most likely to occur through people who share unstable connections with fewer similarities and bonds. Therefore, we see social leverage occur through weak bonds, prevalent for low-income youth, who may not have sway or connections (Briggs, 1998). In Brigg’s study, the African American and Latino youth received less education-related advice, workforce information, and future planning. The study also showed that knowing at least one white or at least one employed adult drastically increased the youth’s discerned access to work knowledge.

Recent research by Ling and Dale (2014) further suggests that student success in higher education is contingent upon elevating resources into opportunities. This includes the sharing of knowledge and ideas beyond one’s community and introducing upward mobility that will connect low-income students to people in positions of power and influence (Ling and Dale (2014); Woolcock& Narayan, 2000).

College Transition

Federal and state legislations have only recently begun supporting students who were formerly in foster care or homeless. For example, Florida passed a statute relieving students from paying tuition and fees if they were adopted from the department of children and families or if they were placed in a guardianship by the court. The tuition exemption program allows eligible individuals to utilize this aid until they reach the age of 28. [Fla. Stat. x1009.25]. Along with this statute, the state assists with self-sufficiency by giving these youths a monthly stipend of $1256 until they reach 23 (Florida State Department of Children and Families, 2020). While these policies only assist those in Florida who have been in the foster care system, the homeless youth have also been able to benefit from financial aid policy changes.

There is a lack of programs that assist former foster youth and the homeless; however, there is an ever-greater absence of programs or organizations that track these adolescents’ long-term experiences. In an effort to track the progress of students participating in assistance programs, Dworsky& Perez (2009) surveyed ten administrators from 10 campus programs in both California and Washington in an attempt to assess the outcomes of any support programs offered. A web-based survey was sent to students from 8 of the ten programs regarding their experiences. Each and every program differed in their admission requirements, financial aid, and overall services. According to the students, some of the services offered were not beneficial to them. Mandatory summer camps, which were created to familiarize students with the university and college life, were not something some students felt were important to attend. Upon reviewing all the programs, one important factor that needs to be addressed is that most programs did not track the students’ use of services, making it difficult to assess how effective a program really is.

Rassen, Cooper, and Mery (2010) researched community colleges in the state of California and had 74 former foster youth (who experiences homelessness once they aged out of the system), as well as 60 foster youth counselors who completed the surveys. Staff from 12 community colleges with well-structured programs for former foster youth were also interviewed. According to the study, the students found the programs beneficial as they provided financial aid and academic assistance. The staff members implemented four techniques that they believed were beneficial to a successful program. These techniques were 1) creating the program on campus, 2) partnering with other organizations in the school, 3) partnering with external organizations and local benefactors and agencies, 4) establish a personal relationship with the student to give them a support center and provide assistance as needed. Despite these techniques, the study revealed that there is still much more support necessary for these programs to do better. Additional support includes superior data collection of the students, extra funding, more general resources, and most importantly, staff who want to serve the population (Rassen, Cooper, and Mery 2010).

The transition from childhood to a higher education institution can pose a challenge to homeless youth. Kirk and day (2011) conducted a study researching a camp program at Michigan State University geared towards foster youth aging out of foster care before starting college. The program was designed to prepare these high school students to transition out of high school to college. The camp program was located on campus and primarily operated by foster care alumni who served as camp counselors. The data retrieved from the 2008-09 study (which compiled interviews from 3 coordinators and surveys from 38 youth) report that the students who participated in the program valued the learning activities and mentoring from the counselors and felt more prepared for the obstacles of being a first-year college student.

Institutional Support

Getting accepted to a higher education institution relies heavily on information accessibility (Kim, 2012). A student’s successful transition to college is contingent upon the willingness of people to help each other. High school faculty and support staff can impart academic assistance for disadvantaged students, serving as an essential resource for navigating the unfamiliar college admissions process (Kim, 2012). CALyouth’sOkpych and Courtney (2017) studied youth foster care and found that the likelihood of college enrollment directly correlated with a student’s access to adults with tertiary education-related knowledge. Additionally, homeless and foster youth may also have other supportive adult-figures important in their lives (Dang, Conger, Breslau, & Miller, 2014; Duke, Farrugia, &Germo, 2017). Recent research has focused on the complex nature of the relationship between the support a student receives and obtaining an education (Collins, Spencer, & Ward, 2010). Barman-Adhikari, Bowen, Bender, Brown, and Rice (2016) found that the support network for homeless youth derived from diverse sources of social support rather than support in the form of money, food, or housing. Collins et al. (2010) suggest that foster youth would benefit significantly from multiple stronger networks of adults who provide leverage socially.

Over the past two decades, on-campus programs have emerged that offer support, at the collegiate level, to homeless and foster students to help bridge the social capital gap. These programs understand and recognize that these populations’ special needs go far past financial assistance and, therefore, provide resources to remedy this issue (Watt, Norton, & Jones, 2013; Dworsky& Perez, 2009). According to a study by Watt et al. (2013), students at the college level, who have experienced foster care, want what most young people who transition to adulthood want. These wants include making use of the resources available to them, gaining independence through self-governance, and redefining oneself.

The first campus program to directly serve foster care students on a college campus came from Cal State Fullerton In 1998. This program was called the Guardian Scholars and has since served as the standard for other programs of a similar nature worldwide. Benefits of participating in the Guardian Scholars include work-study, full-year housing, youth daycare, additional academic and food resources, as well as priority registration. Today, California now has over 25 Guardian Scholars programs, which utilize 12 core elements. These elements include supporting a student’s basic needs, academic advising, student programming, and assistance financially. Additionally, the Guardian Scholars programs offer direct student support in matters such as student leadership and engagement and college entrance and exit counseling (Casey Family Programs, 2010).

Programs that offer campus-based support for foster care students or students who have experienced homelessness, like the Guardian Scholars, have been established in almost every state in the USA and can be found on two and four-year campuses. These on-campus programs address key areas of disparity, including physical and mental wellness, educational accomplishment, and workforce employment (Courtney &Okpych 2018; Courtney, Dworsky, Lee, &Raap, 2010; Watt et al., 2013; Okpych, 2012; Dworsky& Perez, 2009). These statewide networks’ common goal that supports young people who have experienced foster care and homelessness is to transition said students to adulthood successfully.


Social Support

Social support is critical for homeless students (especially foster youth) when transitioning into adulthood and college (Munson, Brown, Spencer, Edguer, & Tracy, 2015). Supportive social relationships can ease stress, provide better life outcomes, and enhance emotional intelligence (Umberson& Montez, 2010). Adolescents who find supportive relationships with committed mentors or adults become more resilient over time and increase academic performance (Lovitt& Emerson, 2009). Similarly, Hass, Allen, and Amoah (2014) studied former foster youth who successfully graduated from college with the help of social support from “turn-around people.” The students reported they were more inclined to work harder to succeed and overcome obstacles when they had someone in their corner to set high expectations and contribute to their academic achievement.

Homeless youth may not have many chances to find and establish relationships with supportive adults. Because homeless youth often experience institutionalized support (i.e., foster homes, social workers), they may not know how to establish a social support system with trusting adults. Samuels (2008) reports that youth who have aged out of the foster care system have trust issues with adults and lack emotional support. There is a great need for more social support to help homeless youth transition into college and successfully complete the journey.

The basic comfort of having a friend who can trust and confide in positively impacts students’ lives by alleviating some everyday struggles like feeling lonely or bored at school (Burlesson, 2009). Social support can offer a sense of safety for students who are experiencing difficult times during college. Homeless individuals tend to experience higher mental health challenges than those with stable housing (Freidlander et al., 2007). Research has shown that a lack of support during troubling times can be associated with depression, anxiety, and life-threatening behaviors among college students (Brown et al. 1987, p.32). Indeed, the buffers theory stipulates that individual needs emotional and social support, moderating the influences of psychosocial adversities (Alloway, & Bebbington,1987). These adversities may also include peer pressure and illnesses that may impact a student’s quality of life.

Some college students credit social support for their academic achievements (De la Ignesia et al., 2014). Social support empowers the students and creates an enabling environment that fosters their academic and personal development. Research shows that social support systems are an essential buffer that helps students with life pressure and empowers them to chase their ambitions (Cobbs, 2016). The Buffer theory enables us to examine and understand the benefits of social support. Cobbs (2016) found that individuals under challenging predicaments rely on social support as a coping strategy.

Eckenrode (2014) researched the social support as a protective barrier for youth. Social support can be defensive due to mediating stress commonly found among students adjusting to college. For some students, having a reliable social support system goes a long way in helping them handle stress in a positive manner (De la Iglesia et al., 2014). Institutions that offer substantial support may play a fundamental role in shaping students’ feelings, perceptions, and overall well-being while experiencing homelessness.

Theoretical Framework

It is acknowledged that the conceptualization of a problem is the initial step in any study. The study regarding homelessness is not exceptional.  This section addresses the perspective with the aid of theories and concepts that will help us understand and tackle homelessness.

Homelessness can be studied within the frameworks of many sciences, including sociology, social policies, psychology, and psychiatry, among other medical sciences. However, this section of the literature review utilizes Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs to explore further how a lack of basic needs affects an individual’s growth.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is best represented with a five-tier pyramid that identifies human needs and arranges them in a hierarchy.  The most fundamental need at the bottom of the pyramid is physiological need (food, shelter, and clothing). Maslow asserts that the bottom (and most important) need should be met for the rest of the pyramid’s tiers to be met  (Maslow, 1943). In Maslow’s theory of needs, he suggests all needs must be fulfilled to reach their full potential (self-actualization). Maslow states that “needs can express themselves simultaneously across the hierarchy. However, it is difficult to achieve self-actualization and meet those needs when needs are not being met at the bottom of the hierarchy.”

Scholars and researchers utilize Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to comprehend how people intrinsically participate in motivation based on certain behaviors (Mcleod, 2007).  Maslow utilized the concept of human  “physiology,” “safety,” “sense of belonging and the need to be loved, “social needs” or “esteem,” and “self-actualization” to illustrate patterns through which people are motivated to participate in certain activities (Einstein, Addams, & Roosevelt, 2016).  The arrangement of these needs in a hierarchy generally stipulates that an individual must satisfy one stage’s needs before working towards achieving the needs in the next stage of the hierarchy.  Moreover, the hierarchy of needs concept for understanding the relation between an individual’s efforts and motivation when discussing human behavior. Each of the identified levels of needs comprises a specific amount of internal sense that must be accomplished for a person to complete their hierarchy (Mcleod, 2007). The ultimate goal that can be identified in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is to achieve self-actualization.

Identifying physiological needs as the most fundamental needs of any individual confirms basic needs forms the basis of human motivation. The concept of basic needs stipulates that physiological needs are universal humans needs and are essential for humans to survive in certain environments, including colleges (Einstein, Addams, & Roosevelt, 2016). Being primal, physiological needs, by default, governs the attainment of “higher” needs. An individual’s endeavors to achieve higher requirements can be temporarily interrupted by the lack of primal needs like food.  Hence, according to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, basic needs are an internal motivation to achieve certain goals (Mcleod, 2007).  As such, homelessness among college students significantly impacts their ability to achieve quality education and, consequently, affects their academic performances.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs also stipulates that humans are compelled to achieve basic needs to attain internal satisfaction on a higher level. If the basic needs, including quality housing, is not fulfilled, it results in an individual’s displeasure (Mcleod, 2007). In return, when the feeling of displeasure increases, the motivation to decrease the resulting discrepancies increase (Einstein, Addams, & Roosevelt, 2016). The rationale means that if an individual struggle to meet their basic needs, they are unlikely to intrinsically pursue other needs, including safety, sense of belonging, self-esteem, and actualization (Mcleod, 2007).  In that sense, homeless students often lack other basic needs like food and clothing, significantly affecting their motivation to pursue education to achieve their future career objectives (Einstein, Addams, & Roosevelt, 2016). This problem calls for the need for new approaches towards supporting students with particular needs.

Most importantly, approaches should support each need (psychological needs, safety, sense of belonging, and esteem) to reach self-actualization (Stayhorn, 2018). Unfortunately, there is limited research and on the needs of homeless college students. This impedes governmental and non-governmental organizations’ ability to support understand the needs of such students and their ability to support these students.

The sociological theory

The sociological theory can also be used to address homelessness among college students.  Generally, a sociological theory is a concept that considers, analyzes. It explains social reality objects based on the principles of sociology, establishing connections between certain concepts to substantiate sociological information. Therefore, such knowledge comprises complex methodologies and theoretical frameworks (Phael et al., 1997). A considerable body of sociological theory is oriented towards social change. Since time immemorial, sociological scholars and researchers have not emphasized the issue of homelessness and poverty in their works through the lenses of college life (Fitzpatrick, 2005). However, there are insights on society’s structure and economic orders that provide successful strategies and methods to comprehend homelessness (Fitzpatrick, 2005).  In his work, Marx looked at the common divide between the working class and the capitalists. On the other hand, Max weber discusses the importance of class and power influences in dominant relationships, including economic factors influencing inequality and inequity in society.

Supporting Maslow’s hierarchy of needs theory, Durkheim, a French sociologist, described the functional necessity’ of inequalities in society to promote specific societies’ well-being (Fitzpatrick, 2005). In the past few decades, sociological research concerning poverty has primarily been focused on society’s structure and the sense of agency, endeavoring to explain the existence and growth of poverty (Phael et al., 1997). For years, the tendencies of determining an individual as a responsible party to their adverse and predicaments have been a common theme.  The theme of undeserving poor is perceived as part and parcel of the moral shortcomings and is interpreted as the major cause of homelessness, including college students. In the contemporary world, the welfare system being a primary cause of the increasing poverty and homeless is a major discourse (Fitzpatrick, 2005). Although these inequalities are a fundamental cause of homeless, sociologists often disregard these rationales and utilize empirical proof to argue against these common elucidations concerning homelessness. However, they look at the larger context, as the number of opportunities individuals can access to address their predicaments.


Formal campus programs are helpful for foster youth and homeless students during various parts of their college process. While they may be advantageous to these students, their effectiveness cannot be quantified as data collection and monitoring is very limited. As seen with the countless research and surveys conducted, very few programs monitor the students’ progress after graduation.

This minority population of students faces many obstacles, such as the transition from their initial stage of upbringing through high school to college and feeling their needs are unmet in a university setting. Students undergoing insecurities reported a feeling of not belonging. Being able to afford and attend a university is only one barrier that this group of students, in part, has to overcome. Continuous support (from various programs, individuals, campus resources, or community) is necessary for these students to succeeded and prove that they are not going through hardships while attending a higher education institution. Forming relationships with advisors or mentors have proven to be successful and vital to these students. Information obtained from meetings and interviews with counselors and coaches at sizable public universities revealed that this personnel is the backbone of the program’s success to support homeless students. These coaches and mentors help integrate both the students and university resources such as financial aid or campus assistance. University programs that have partnered with other organizations have also connected students to larger populations proving to be effective in improving individual skills such as autonomy and independence.

While having a mentor or coach has been emotionally supportive to students, the lack of resources makes it difficult for these coaches to do their jobs. Mentors and coaches are usually left to work alone without support after being hired and trained. The absence of proper support and resources poses a challenge to dealing with students who suffer from mental health issues. In order for these programs to be effective, they need to monitor their efficacy by improving how they collect data concerning homeless students. In doing so, new procedures and policies can be implemented into these programs, which will enhance success as data analysis will show what is needed and necessary for these students to succeed.

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