Even though Isabella Moles has a near-full ride scholarship to Susquehanna University, she spent her first semester couch surfing. Her financial aid covered her tuition, but it didn’t pay for all of her living expenses. And, “eventually, you run out of friends,” the 19-year-old sophomore said. “So there were nights where I slept in my car, which is kind of scary. You’re constantly hitting the lock button because … that’s your only sense of security.”
Sleeping in her car took its toll on her physical health and academic performance, and it became unsustainable in the biting Pennsylvania winter. Eventually, halfway through her freshman year, Moles was able to move into the dorms. But students have to move out of the residence halls during longer holidays, leaving Moles, and many others, with nowhere to go.
A friend offered her a place to stay, but it wasn’t the same. “During breaks, I know that’s where I can go. But you never really feel like you’re home,” she said. “You don’t ever have a bed that’s yours. You can say, ‘I sleep on a bed.’ You can’t say, ’I sleep on my bed.’”
Lorraine Njoki, a graduate student at the State University of New York at Potsdam, had a similar experience as an undergraduate at Clarkson University. For her, school was a respite from New York City’s shelter system, where she had grown up in a single room that she shared with her mother. “During breaks, it was like, ‘Where am I going home to?’” Njoki said. “It was exhausting to go to a shelter because your break should be restorative, relaxing, and bring energy, and that’s not what break was for me.”
I met Moles and Njoki in September at RealCollege, a conference on basic needs insecurity hosted by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. I’ve spent the last four months reporting on food and housing insecurity on U.S. campuses, and their stories are, unfortunately, far from unique.
Many campuses shut down over breaks, leaving only essential services and facilities online. Some universities, like University of Oregon, allow students to stay on campus for a prorated fee, while others, like University of California, Santa Cruz, partner with local hotels to provide accommodation for students who need housing over breaks. Warren Wilson College, a private liberal arts school in North Carolina, prioritizes students who need housing in an on-campus work program that runs over breaks.
Student populations have changed, and not everyone fits the model of a middle-class high school senior going straight to from her parents’ house to college ― and back to her childhood home for Christmas.
Student populations have changed, and not everyone fits the model of a middle-class high school senior going straight from her parents’ house to college ― and back to her childhood home for Christmas. At most institutions, the model for student housing is built on the assumption that students living on-campus have somewhere to go over extended breaks. But many do not. While there are no national statistics available on the number of students who need housing over breaks, 36 percent of four-year university students and 51 percent of community college students were housing insecure in 2017, according to a study from Temple’s Hope Center. Nine percent of university students and 12 percent of community college students identified as homeless.
Over the holidays, these students need a place to live, as do independent and low-income students like Moles, who either don’t have family who can host them or for whom the cost of travel is prohibitive. This is particularly the case for out-of-state and international students. Then there are those who need to stay close to campus so they can keep their jobs, and students, especially LGBTQ+ students, who have been kicked out of their parents’ homes for coming out.
The assumption that all students have somewhere to go on extended breaks puts the students who don’t in the position of relying on the charity of friends. And it further exacerbates their feelings of isolation. All of Moles’ friends live on campus. “When they go home, they go home to their parents. I don’t have any parents,” she said. “When people hear about my situation, they always offer, ‘You can come and stay with us.’ But it’s not the same.”
While only a handful of students at any given institution might need housing over breaks, those are exactly the students who might be most at risk of not graduating. Housing and food insecurity among college students is a significant public health issue that undermines college graduation rates, according to recent research.
There has been a good deal of research into the negative effects of housing insecurity and homelessness on students’ performance in the K-12 system, but researchers are only now beginning to quantify the impact on college students. A study of hunger and housing in the California State University system found a direct link between hunger and homelessness and physical and mental health problems, lower grades and poor attendance. As a result, the CSU system has recognized basic needs security as an important part of their Graduation Initiative 2025, which aims to boost graduation rates for all CSU students and close opportunity gaps for underserved populations.
While only a handful of students at any given institution might need housing over breaks, those are exactly the students who might be most at risk of not graduating.
The anxiety of not knowing where they are going to sleep during the semester or during the holidays also contributes to students’ physical and psychological distress. Moles said that at one point, the stress of being homeless made her hair fall out. She decided to disclose her situation to the university only when her GPA dropped so low that she was in danger of losing her scholarships.
Institutions are not kicking students out of the dorms at breaks because they are callous and uncaring. In fact, student affairs professionals count among some of the most caring and compassionate individuals I’ve met. Many campuses count on significant energy cost savings by shutting down electricity and heat in non-occupied buildings during campus curtailment periods. Allowing students to remain on campus during breaks also creates challenges for dining services and raises liability issues.
While it might not be practically or financially feasible for every institution to keep the dorms open 365 days a year, it should be possible to find solutions for individual students. This requires cultivating a campus climate where students feel supported and are not afraid to ask for help, something that many homeless students often are reluctant to do. Campuses need to reach out to students rather than waiting for students to advocate for themselves, and should work closely with financial aid to make sure all students can afford shelter over breaks.
There’s no easy solution to this problem, but we can start by challenging assumptions that “struggling” is a normal part of college. Moles has been hesitant to ask for help because of the stigma that associated with homelessness and housing insecurity. “I’ve been told before that, ’Oh, that’s just part of college. When you go to college you struggle,” she said. “But there’s nothing normal about my situation.”
Charlotte West is a Seattle- and Denver-based freelance journalist who covers education, housing policy, juvenile justice, and politics.