Housing crunch leaves U.S. college students with few options

At colleges across the country, students are experiencing housing insecurity amid a shortage of available on-campus housing and affordable off-campus options. Experts predict that if the last two years are any indication, the number of students at risk of homelessness could continue to grow, AP News reports.

According to an annual basic-needs survey from The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, 43% of students at four-year colleges faced housing insecurity in 2020, compared to 35% in 2019. Additionally, 14% of students at both two- and four-year colleges reported experiencing homelessness, a record high since the Center first started tracking basic needs in 2015. Students also reported having difficulty paying in full for rent, mortgage, and utilities, with two-year college students seven percentage points less likely to be able to pay for utility bills in 2020 than 2019.

Related: #RealCollege survey finds housing, food insecurity persist; record number of schools participate >

Demand for student housing leads to tensions, temporary solutions

Persistent housing shortages near college campuses pose an especially steep barrier for students with financial difficulties. Rent has increased 17% nationwide since March 2020, according to Chris Salivati, senior economist with Apartment List, and in college towns, rent prices have surged as demand for campus housing outpaces supply. In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, home to eight colleges, including the University of North Carolina, rent has increased 24% since January 2020, according to The Daily Tar Heel. Likewise, in Tempe, Arizona, a college town with one of the largest populations of undergraduates in the nation, rent has jumped 31%.

Some colleges are working to address the lack of affordable student housing. Student demand for on-campus housing at the University of Tampa so exceeded capacity that the university offered $3,500 “deferral grants,” or reduced tuition, for students who chose to defer for a year rather than face larger-than-expected costs for off-campus housing, Tampa Bay Times reports. In Tampa, rents have jumped 30% in the past year. Rent in Knoxville jumped 36% since March 2020 and is predicted to increase after the University of Tennessee announced a new lottery system that prioritizes housing for larger freshman classes. In October 2021, Long Beach City College offered up to 15 homeless students access to an enclosed parking garage, where they can sleep in their cars and have access to bathroom facilities, internet, and electrical outlets while waiting for permanent housing.

Meanwhile, limited on-campus housing for students at the University of California, Berkeley, has led to increased tensions between the school and local residents. After Berkeley residents sued the university for increasing enrollment despite not providing sufficient student housing, the California state Supreme Court ordered the university to freeze enrollment at fall 2020-21 levels, which would have resulted in 3,000 fewer students accepted for the incoming fall 2022 class, AP News reports. While lawmakers quickly found workarounds to prevent the court-mandated enrollment freeze, the housing problem remained unsolved.

Related: California students, institutions scramble amid housing crunch >

A survey from The Basic Needs Center—which provides access to food, housing, health care and other basic needs for students at UC Berkeley—reports that one quarter of undergraduates lacked a regular place to sleep at night at some point since October 2021. “That’s huge,” says Ruben Canedo, co-chair of UC’s Basic Needs Committee. “This generation of students is navigating the most expensive cost-of-living market while at the same time having the least amount of financial support accessible to them.”

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