Homeless or Impoverished and Wanting to Learn: Challenges and Solutions for College Students in Need
Perhaps you spent your K-12 education being told, “College is the way to success.” Maybe it was implied to you that postsecondary education is some kind of magic bullet that will solve all your financial woes immediately. Of course, for many, college education is still a path to greater lifetime earnings, and more people from low-income households are entering college than ever before.
But if you are in high school growing up in a low-income household, or a current college student struggling with financial instability and homelessness, this dream may seem out of reach.
Let’s take a look at statistics related to low-income and homeless young people and college students and the causes of these challenges. For aspiring college students, we’ll then discuss how to pick the right type of postsecondary education for your situation and how to achieve your goals during and after college—even if you’re continuing to have financial troubles during your studies
Remember: There is no shame in asking for help. We all need it sometimes.
Low-Income and Homeless Students—Who Are They?
Low-income and homeless students can be anyone—any person in the sea of faces in a classroom or in the dining hall line. You can’t necessarily tell if someone is going through hardships just by looking at them.
They attend both high-poverty and wealthy K-12 schools. Some even go to private high schools. And in college? Chances are you’re surrounded by other students who are struggling to make ends meet.
During the 2016-2017 school year, there were 1.3 million homeless children enrolled in our nation’s public schools. Additionally, 36% of college students reported being housing insecure in 2018, with 9% being homeless.
Poverty and homelessness can happen to anyone. Even a person driving a nice car and wearing designer clothing may be struggling, with those belongings left over from previous circumstances or being excellent thrift store finds. Don’t judge a book by its cover.
Why Are Young People in This Situation?
The reasons for poverty and homelessness among young people are innumerable. Research from the National Alliance to End Homelessness (NAEH) says family conflict is a major reason for homelessness. This may include unstable foster care arrangements, abusive situations, parental neglect, addictions among family members, or relatives who don’t accept young people who are pregnant or identify as LGBTQIA+.
These struggles may also stem from the fact that their families can’t find safe or affordable housing, have experienced job losses, have a background of family poverty that’s hard to escape from, or are affected by disabilities. A large percentage of students’ families in this situation have experienced rent or mortgage increases that were not affordable. Additionally, the NAEH says young people of color, especially Black or Indigenous people, are more likely to find themselves homeless.
What Parents Can Do
If you’re a parent raising children in a low-income household or while experiencing homelessness, you may feel your situation is hopeless. But there are some things you can do to help your children break the cycle.
As you already know, children’s basic needs (food, clothing, safety, shelter) come first. Local charitable organizations or government assistance may be available to help you make it through, including food pantries, SNAP and housing programs, and even transportation funding options. See our lists in the Options for Low-Income and Homeless College Students and After College is Over sections below to find links to these possibilities.
Another important thing to do is remain positive about school. Your kids will probably internalize your words and behaviors about education, individual teachers, and their own abilities. If you speak in a way that focuses on the importance of doing well in school and makes them believe they can succeed, they’re more likely to stay on the right track.
Your own education and training also play a role in this. If you’re working a minimum wage job or are unemployed—which there is no shame in—and are struggling to make ends meet, you could consider getting some career training and assistance in finding a new job. There are almost 2,400 American Job Centers nationwide, with locations in every state. They can help find training, assist with job searches, and provide resources for improving your resumes and interview skills.
You could also investigate free and low-cost skill and career training programs, like Premier Nursing Academy’s free CNA training, workshops held by your local library, or a variety of other options.
How Widespread are Poverty and Homelessness Among College Students?
The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice’s #RealCollege 2020 survey discovered 17% of college students were homeless in the year preceding their study. Additionally, 39% were food insecure in the previous month, and 46% were housing insecure in the last year.
Though many people assume homelessness is a result of unemployment, this isn’t usually the case. Seven out of 10 homeless students are employed and actually work more hours than other students. While employment is admirable and necessary for many, this can get in the way of focusing on their studies.
What Happens to Low-Income and Homeless College Students
College students who experience financial insecurity and homelessness often have poorer outcomes than their peers who don’t.
The #RealCollege 2020 Survey mentioned above found students who experience food insecurity or homelessness earn grades of C or below more often than their peers.
Though there’s a longstanding joke of “C’s and D’s get degrees,” when you’re starting out on your career path, your GPA does matter. Even though it’s often recommended to not include your GPA on your resume, especially later in your career, many job applications still ask for it—even if you finished college decades ago. And a good GPA is especially important if you want to continue on to earn a graduate degree.
As of 2019, 40% of college students dropped out of school. Public university students drop out at a rate of 50%, and Black and Latinx learners, as well as those receiving Pell grants—money low-income students can receive from the government—drop out at even higher rates. If students are forced to drop out of college due to the pressures of homelessness and poverty, they may not ever go back—only 13% of those who drop out of college ever return.
College and Career Readiness for Low-Income and Homeless Students
Research shows employment and earnings increase with each level of education. Not only that, but, on average, those who have attended college and earned degrees live longer, are healthier, are more likely to vote, and are more involved in their communities. According to Education Leads Home, young people without an education are 4.5 times more likely to be homeless later.
The nation faces a huge shortage of skilled workers. The U.S. Department of Labor reported in 2019 that 7.6 million American jobs were unfilled; there weren’t enough trained workers to fill them.
These reasons have led to a nationwide call for students to be “college and career ready.” And while it’s a good idea in theory, it may be a burden many low-income and homeless students can’t carry. Students from low-income backgrounds fail to meet college readiness milestones more than their higher-income peers.
And not just that—young people whose parents don’t have college degrees are less likely to attend or complete postsecondary education. This is often because they feel they can’t afford school to begin with or because their parents don’t know how to best support them during the application process or while attending school because they’ve never experienced these things themselves.
It’s important to remember, however, this isn’t a failure on the parents’ parts. As the saying goes, “you don’t know what you don’t know”—and you certainly can’t teach what you don’t know.
Fortunately, schools and lawmakers are working hard to ensure students have adequate support to help them succeed in school. Students may find free or low-cost training programs, childcare, transportation, technology resources, and academic counselors available to them, even at the high school level.
Suggestions for High School Students Who Want to Attend College
If you’re a high schooler who wants to attend college, but you’re concerned about money, here are some actions you can take to cut costs:
Apply for Scholarships
Your chances of getting a scholarship or some sort of financial aid go up if you do well in high school. Make good grades a top priority. If you’re struggling, talk to your teachers or a guidance counselor about getting help.
Take High School Classes for College Credit
Try earning college credits while you’re still in high school. You may be able to take job training (often called career and technical education), dual-credit, or Advanced Placement (AP) classes. Doing these while in high school is can save you money in college.
- CTE classes are generally offered as electives and are free to take. Some end in job certifications if you stick with them long enough.
- Dual credit courses may have costs associated with them, though they’re often less expensive than the college courses alone.
- AP classes are free to take, but there’s a charge to take the exams—though it’s much cheaper than a college class would be. High scores on the tests may allow you to opt-out of some introductory classes in college.
- Talk to a guidance counselor about your options for financial aid if these costs feel out of reach.
Attend Community College Before or Instead of Four-Year College
Community colleges provide training at a fraction of the cost of four-year colleges. Contact your local community college about your options for free or low-cost training. You may even be allowed to take credit classes while you’re still in high school.
Find a Job
If you don’t have a job, try to find one and start putting a little money aside for school. Even just working during the summer could help.
Skills to Develop Before College
Preparing for the costs of college is only half the battle. Managing your time and finances, handling the responsibilities of being an adult, and learning how to deal with life’s challenges are also important because they may keep you from feeling overwhelmed by college. These skills could also help you save money in the long run.
It may seem like it will cost money to learn these skills, but that’s not always true. You can learn to do a great number of these things from YouTube, school family and consumer sciences (FACS)/home economics classes, or at your local library. If there’s a skill you want to learn and your library doesn’t offer it, you can reach out to them—they may not know there’s an interest until someone tells them.
If they’re not provided by the place you’re learning from, many supplies can be purchased at your local dollar stores or other low-cost businesses.
Here are some skills that might be valuable for you to learn before college.
Managing your money
Financial literacy is critical to success, yet the majority of teens don’t know how things like credit card interest and fees work. Basics include learning to create and stick to a budget, understanding savings and investing, and understanding how loans and insurance work.
Preparing meals at home instead of eating out can save you a lot of money over time.
Repairing or even making clothes can help you save money on your wardrobe.
States and counties often offer free skills training. Talk to your local employment or economic development authority about free computer or software training.
Writing well and speaking English relatively fluently can help you with job and college applications. Plus, they’re important life skills. Consider finding free or low-cost tutoring, ask for help from your teachers, or find free online courses.
Resources for Skills Development
The National Endowment for Financial Education offers real-life money guides for students, school administrators, and other learners.
Economics & Personal Financial Resources for K-12 offers free online classes for teachers and students.
Everfi offers a variety of K-12 financial education courses online for free.
Mint, Simple, and Wally are just a few of the many financial education and budgeting apps that can help students track their spending and save to reach goals.
Video lessons in the fundamentals of cooking for beginners through advanced lessons for those looking to beef up their culinary game
Kitchn Cooking School
20 easy-to-absorb, free online lessons on basic cooking techniques
Top Chef University
Free online cooking lessons from top celebrity chefs
Among Alison’s more than 2,000 free online courses are offerings in using Adobe PhotoShop, computer skills, email etiquette, and more.
Learn basic computer skills, such as online safety, Windows, and more for free.
Home and Learn
These free online computer courses cover beginning computing, Microsoft Excel or Word, Java, and more.
U.S. Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration
This site provides information on training programs for workers in your area.
What to Consider When Choosing a College
If you’re interested in applying to college, there’s a lot to think about such as:
- What do I want to study?
- What are my career goals?
- What certification or degree is required?
- Would online or in-person be best?
- What is the time commitment?
- What does it cost?
We’ve put together the following to help you weigh your options.
Understanding Costs by Type of School
Not all schools after high school are the same. The type of school you attend and the degree you receive usually depends on your career interests. You only need to complete a short program to learn practical skills in a specific career for some jobs. For other fields or professions, you might need longer, more in-depth study and research.
|Type of School||Average Tuition||Degrees Available|
|Trade School||$3,588-$14,547 total||Certificate, diploma|
|Two-Year College||$3,730 per year (approx. $7,460 total)||Certificate, diploma, associate degree|
|Four-Year College||$87,800 total||Associate, bachelor’s|
Data sources: Trade school and four-year college costs are from the U.S. Department of Education College Affordability and Transparency List and reflect the year 2020. Four-year college cost is based on bachelor’s programs. Two-year college information is from College Board and reflects the 2018-2019 school year. For more specific tuition information, check out the U.S. Department of Education College Affordability and Transparency List.
Also known as vocational schools or career training programs, trade schools provide training in specific trades or careers. One benefit of trade school is that it can usually be completed quickly, between as few as a few weeks up to three years. Some typical careers you can prepare for include, but aren’t limited to:
|Career||2019 Median Salary||2019 Median Hourly Pay||2019-2029 Growth|
|Nursing Assistant and Orderly*||$29,460||$14.25||8%|
|Plumber, Pipefitter, and Steamfitter||$55,160||$26.52||4%|
|Career and Technical Education Teacher**||$58,110||$27.94||2%|
Data source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020)
*Nursing assistants’ median annual wage is $29,660, with certified nursing assistants (CNAs) generally earning more than uncertified nursing assistants. Orderlies’ median salary is $28,980.
**You generally need to work in your field for several years before working as a career and technical education (CTE) teacher in a K-12 school.
Associate degrees can usually be completed in about two years. They include Associate of Arts (A.A.), Associate of Science (A.S.), and Associate of Applied Science (A.A.S.). A.A. and A.S. programs can lead to jobs but are more geared toward preparing you for further education. Many jobs let you start with an A.A. or A.S. while you work toward a bachelor’s degree, which may be required for more advanced jobs. A.A.S. degrees are usually more practical, technical, or hands-on, readying you for the workforce.
Some careers you can get with an associate degree include, but aren’t limited to:
|Career||2019 Median Salary||2019 Median Hourly Pay||2019-2029 Growth|
|Diagnostic Medical Sonographer and Cardiovascular Technician||$68,750||$33.05||12%|
|Paralegal and Legal Assistant||$51,740||$24.87||10%|
Data source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (2020)
*Registered nurses are often expected to work toward a Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) once employed.
A bachelor’s degree generally takes four years to complete if you’re enrolled full time. You can earn a Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.), but there are other specialties, such as Bachelor of Fine Arts (B.F.A.). Typically, a four-year degree provides general training in English, math, history, etc., and then offers training in your chosen major. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) says jobs requiring bachelor’s degrees should see faster-than-average growth through 2026.
The five most common bachelor’s degrees—though they’re available in nearly any subject you can imagine—are:
|Business||Account manager, business analyst, human resources specialist, marketing manager, sales manager|
|Health Professions and Related Programs||Dietician, health information manager, healthcare consultant, registered nurse, recreational therapist|
|Social Sciences and History||Counselor, geographer, history teacher, librarian, museum curator|
|Psychology||Counselor, community health worker, market researcher, probation and parole officer, social worker|
|Biological and Biomedical Sciences||Biological technician, biology teacher, health communications specialist, pharmaceutical sales representative|
While this won’t happen immediately after finishing high school or earning your GED, if you wish to go into a highly specialized field, it’s good to plan ahead. Many fields expect you to earn a master’s, doctoral, or professional degree.
Though they may lead to higher-paying careers, the investment of time and money required for this training may be quite large. In 2017, those with master’s degrees earned a median salary of $60,090, and people with doctoral or professional degrees made $103,820. Costs of the degrees vary widely by subject area (for instance, you’d likely pay more for a Doctor of Medicine degree than a Doctor of Physical Therapy degree), but as of 2017, the average yearly tuition for graduate students was $18,416.
Some of the most common graduate degrees conferred in 2020 were:
|Business (master’s)||Computer and information systems manager, financial analyst, market research analyst|
|Education (master’s and doctorate)||Principal, speech/language pathologist, superintendent, teacher|
|Health professions and related programs (master’s and doctorate)||Medical and health services manager, medical doctor, nurse practitioner, occupational therapist, physical therapist|
|Legal professions and studies (doctorate)||Compliance director, court administrator, legal consultant, lawyer, judge|
|Engineering (doctorate)||High-level positions in all engineering fields, engineering professor|
Part-Time vs. Full-Time Education
Next, you’ll need to decide whether to enroll as a full- or part-time student. As you might expect, part-time enrollment means you’re only taking taking about six to 11 credit hours, or one to three classes, at a time. Full-time enrollment is more like a workday; it usually comprises 12 or more credits, or around four or more classes at once.
Full-time attendance usually means faster degree completion, but it also means higher costs per semester. Part-time degrees take longer to complete, but you’ll pay less each semester—though costs are potentially the same as or more than full-time students will pay over the course of the program. Many scholarships require full-time enrollment, though this isn’t universal. Only you can decide which route is best for you—there isn’t a right or wrong answer—and remember that you can often change your type of enrollment.
For some students, online education offers desired flexibility. For example, it may allow you to work regular hours or care for children during the day. Then you can complete your schoolwork at times that are convenient for you, and you won’t need to travel to class.
However, many students do better in a classroom setting where they can be in contact with teachers and other students. Knowing yourself and speaking to a college counselor can help you decide.
Financial Aid for Low-Income and Homeless Students
In 2017, $2.3 billion in free federal grant money went unused by high school graduates. This means more money is available to students than you might think.
To see if you qualify for financial aid, start by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Like the name says, it’s free to fill out and submit. Every student qualifies for some form of federal student aid, including grants, loans, or work-study jobs.
Before choosing to take out loans, do your research—and ask for help understanding their terms. Loans generally provide school funding that you won’t need to pay back until you graduate, but they accrue interest, meaning you’ll have to pay back more than you borrowed. Government loans typically have lower interest rates than private loans.
What to Do if Parental Income Hurts Financial Aid Options
Parents’ income may affect their students’ ability to get financial aid if they are considered dependents on their parents on tax returns. But it’s still worthwhile to submit a FAFSA to see what you can get. If the parents’ adjusted gross income is $31,000 or less, their estimated family contribution (the amount the government estimates your family will chip in for college) is zero.
Eligibility relies on more than just income, though. The government also considers the school’s cost, the number of children in the family, and other special circumstances when deciding how much and what kinds of financial aid to offer.
If you meet the criteria for being an independent student (being at least 24, married, supporting a dependent, etc.), you may file a FAFSA on your own and could qualify for more aid.
But if your parents’ income is severely hurting your aid options, you could try to become an independent student by filing to be an emancipated minor. Through the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, students can go to court before the age of 24 to receive this status. Confusingly, “emancipated minor” is not the same as “emancipated,” a term related to legal custody only. So, if you’re emancipated in terms of custody, your parents’ income may still affect your aid. However, if you’re an emancipated minor, you can apply for financial aid without providing any parental information.
Resources for Financial Aid
Scholarships are available to students of all backgrounds, talents, goals, and interests. Many organizations give scholarships to students with financial need.
The following resources may help identify financial aid options:
Scholarships for Nursing Students
This list provides information about scholarships for people of any background, economic level, skill set, or hobby, with an emphasis on those pursuing a nursing or healthcare profession.
Scholarships for Historically Underrepresented Students
This resource focuses on scholarships for students who are BIPOC, women, or have disabilities.
Scholarships for Veterans in Healthcare
If you’re a military vet entering a healthcare career, this list includes many scholarships for you.
This massive site provides a directory of 3.7 million scholarships and grants.
This one-stop-shop answers all your questions about financial aid and includes lists of scholarships
Along with other valuable information for college students, this site allows you to create a profile that will match you with scholarship opportunities you can apply for.
High school staff
Your school counselors and teachers may be able to help you find scholarships and other sources of aid.
Local organizations and your employer
Talk to organizations or employers you’re affiliated with; many provide scholarship money or tuition reimbursement to eligible students.
Options for Low-Income and Homeless College Students
Students attending college while struggling with money issues may have resources available through their schools. Talk to faculty members, your academic advisor, a financial aid counselor, or your school’s career center about what options may be available to you. These may include more sources of financial aid. You also may already have paid for some helpful resources with your student fees, such as tutoring or counseling.
Other resources you may have access to include:
- Free internet on campus, low-cost internet for your home
- Housing vouchers and public housing
- Free or low-cost computers
- Free or low-cost childcare (check to see if your institution has a daycare)
- Access to a food and hygiene pantry
- SNAP benefits (restrictions apply for students)
One point that’s important to mention is schools may have low-cost on-campus housing available for qualifying students. However, Trulia’s research shows it’s often a bit cheaper to live off-campus if you don’t qualify, particularly if you have roommates.
This Is Too Much, and I’m Thinking of Dropping Out. What Do I Do?
The time and cost of college can sometimes feel overwhelming. But for many, the best path is to keep going. If you earn your degree, you may have a better chance of changing your financial situation in the long run.
Before you give up, here are some ideas that might help:
Identify the problem
Is it just about money, or is it everything? Don’t let the frustrations of life derail you from your goals. Consider all your options, seek help, and think it through carefully before you give up.
Take advantage of resources
Colleges offer many resources to help students succeed. They may include college-success courses, free tutoring and mental health counseling, academic advisement, career preparation, and more. Talk to somebody at the school about your concerns. They want you to stay in school and will help you work toward a solution.
Perhaps change your major
You usually aren’t stuck with what you initially went to college for. Maybe your program just isn’t a good fit, and you can switch programs.
Improve your study skills
Learning how to study effectively may ease your stress.
Remind yourself of the outcome
Staying in your program may seem tough, but remember that when students drop out, they aren’t likely to re-enroll. Plus, a college degree usually results in higher pay. Remind yourself of your goal and stay focused on that in the tough times.
Consider going to part-time or online
These options could help you get back some of the flexibility and time you need right now. It may take you a little longer to complete your program, but it could help your financial and mental health, so it’s a small price to pay.
Financial Help If You’re Struggling After College is Over
Unfortunately, a certification or college degree often doesn’t make hardships immediately disappear. Even if you have a job lined up immediately after graduation, you still need to find housing, potentially move to accommodate your new job, acquire work-appropriate clothing, secure transportation, and more.
And if you don’t have a job lined up? You need to find some source of income that’ll accommodate your ability to go on job interviews.
This all sounds scary, especially if you’ve dealt with financial issues. But, there are resources available to help you through this time. In addition to many of the options available to college students listed above, here are a few other ways to get help:
As of July 2020, 52% of young adults live with their parents—so if they’re able to let you move in for free or for a low cost, consider doing so. If that’s not possible, consider the housing options mentioned earlier in this piece.
Many agencies provide money to people who need financial assistance with relocation.
There are several organizations to help people obtain job interview clothing for free.
When the time comes to get a wardrobe for work, thrift stores may be your best option for acquiring nice clothing at low costs.
Whether you need help getting a car, paying for gas, or getting public transit passes, you may be able to find help through a variety of sources.
There are many flexible positions—a good number of which allow you to work from home—that could help you earn some cash while you hunt for your ideal position.