A new kind of housing crisis has America’s college students concerned. Unfortunately, it is not receiving the public or governmental attention of a residential housing crisis. The student housing shortage is a potential tsunami likely to set off a series of long-term negative consequences for the economy. According to a 2022 survey by StudentBeans, one-fifth of U.S. students have faced housing insecurity — or find themselves without a permanent place of residence during their studies. According to a 2021 report issued by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, about 52% of students at two-year colleges and 43% of students at four-year colleges experienced housing insecurity during the 12 months preceding the survey. Needless to say, the crisis has a disproportionate impact on Black, Indigenous, and LGBTQ+ students.
With the rising cost of tuition alongside increasing university enrollment rates, students nationwide cannot find affordable housing. As universities have not been able to invest in adequate student housing infrastructure, they cannot keep up with the demand for on-campus housing.
While a college education is rightfully seen as desirable for most students and a passport to better job prospects and higher salaries, the housing shortage has a debilitating impact on the ability of most students to pursue their dreams. Though almost 45% of students across the country continue to live with their parents to go to college, this is not an option for everyone. Students find themselves in a bitter competition to secure the limited housing available, and most are unsuccessful. While an alarming number of students find themselves in nightmare scenarios like couch surfing or sleeping in their car, as many as 1% of students (over 200,000) each year consider themselves homeless and dependent on college housing for a roof above their heads. In a concerning move, Long Beach City College in California recently piloted a program to allocate designated parking spots for unhoused students to sleep overnight in their cars. Community colleges are even collaborating to provide housing for vulnerable students, in addition to helping these students meet daily needs, including food banks and support for other basic living necessities. However, their reach and impact are limited. As rents and living costs remain high, most students find themselves settling for substandard housing conditions. The poor living environment negatively impacts their mental health and physical well-being and, in turn, leads to breakdowns and subsequent falls in academic performance.
Improving Access to Student Housing Is Key
When it comes to solving the student housing shortage crisis, there is much to be done, starting with acknowledging the true measure and consequences of the problem. There needs to be a strategic and proactive approach to dealing with the shortage. Universities must allocate resources to invest in building new student housing facilities and renovating existing ones suitably to meet the exponential growth in demand. More universities should offer financial support to students to enable them to secure safe housing. Government agencies and the private sector could also play a greater role in addressing the student housing shortage and working with universities to provide affordable housing options to students.
At the same time, students do not have to feel that their inability to find student housing while pursuing a full-time university education can be an obstacle, preventing them from realizing their dreams and potential.
Rethinking the ‘Idea’ of College: Beyond Traditional University Education
It is possible to pursue a quality university education in a nontraditional way while reaping the benefits of upgraded skills, better qualifications, and job prospects. Several students are discovering the merits of online, hybrid, and non-linear university education. Today, major accredited universities meeting the highest educational standards offer students the opportunity to get a top-notch college education online. Some even offer competence-led learning, which could help candidates take their proficiency and skills at work or school to proceed through the requirements of a degree in an accelerated manner.
Beyond offering an individual student the highest level of convenience, flexibility, and affordability, promoting access to online education may help circumvent the student housing shortage in the short term and lead to better outcomes for students and universities in the long term. Regardless of how much investment we can expect in the area, the supply of housing in any form — single-family, multifamily, university housing — is going to be short and expensive for the foreseeable future.
Online education offers a viable win-win alternative to lessen the burden on the demand for housing. It can also present other positive benefits, including on the environment by reducing traffic congestion, emissions, and the need for additional support infrastructure for on-site students. In an economy where jobs are uncertain, online education also allows many students to continue to work at their jobs while pursuing their college education from home. This factor is crucial, as research shows that almost 77% of American graduate students are over 25 years old (with roughly half of these being parents), challenging the idea of the very young college student willing to fit their life into the confines of a dormitory. Private sector companies could use this insight to offer tuition assistance to high-quality online education programs as a valuable perk, allowing employees to hold down their jobs while up-leveling their skills and chasing their dreams.
While some universities may see the rising popularity of online and non-conventional education as disruptive and favor a more traditional in-person offering for their student body, this is ineffective unless the university can provide safe and affordable housing to students. The University of California system recently banned fully online degrees, effectively preventing access to some of its most vulnerable student groups. However, solely presenting a traditional in-person education without being able to provide adequate, affordable housing is unfair and exclusionary to the majority of students.
Education must provide students from all backgrounds with the means to improve their socioeconomic condition and achieve financial independence, not find themselves indebted, insecure, and unable to escape the cycle of deprivation.