Homeless College Students: A National Tragedy

Homeless College Students: A National Tragedy
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At a time when many colleges are competing to attract students by opening upscale dormitories that offer luxury amenities like climbing walls and fine cuisine in their dining halls, thousands of other college students across the country are homeless -- often "couch surfing" with friends, sleeping in cars or living in homeless shelters.

Many of these students don't consider themselves homeless because they aren't sleeping on sidewalks or park benches. Many don't want to say they're homeless out of embarrassment.

A study issued this year by California State University estimates that about 9 percent of the university system's approximately 470,000 students are homeless, and roughly one in five doesn't have access to a steady supply of food.

That same study reported that in 2013-2014, about 57,000 college students nationally identified themselves as homeless, a 75 percent increase over three years earlier. But the study said that "this is undoubtedly a low count" because so many students are reluctant to call themselves homeless. Blending in with fellow students, they are often invisible.

As bad as this is, the situation is actually worse for those even younger. The Department of Justice estimates that about 1.7 million young people ages 12 to 17 experience some degree of homelessness each year across the United States.

In an effort to help homeless students, U.S. Education Secretary John King issued guidance to states and school districts July 27 to "better protect and serve homeless students and help schools in providing these students with much needed stability, safety, and support." This comes on top of recent changes by the Education Department to make it easier for homeless students to apply for financial aid to go to college.

The problem of homelessness among students is consistent with my experience as head of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which awards scholarships throughout the country to exceptionally high-achieving students from low-income families. Every year we get many applications from stellar students who are homeless or, at least, "home insecure." In fact, roughly 15 of our 450 scholarship recipients who are currently in college have experienced homelessness at some point.

Far too many homeless students -- including some who are very smart -- never go to college or even drop out of high school, taking low-paying jobs instead of continuing their educations so they can make enough money to put a roof over their heads and food on the table. This is a sad though understandable course of action, with lifelong consequences.

One remarkable student who worked his way out of poverty and homelessness is Raul Mateo Magdaleno, the youngest of 10 children. His family moved from Mexico to Dallas as undocumented immigrants when he was just 18 months old. Not long afterward, his father was sentenced to prison and died. Later, Magdaleno's two brothers were sent to prison. None of his sisters graduated from high school.

The Cooke Foundation awarded Magdaleno a college scholarship in 2004 when his grades and community engagement distinguished him as a leader and as a scholar in his community college. That enabled him to earn a bachelor's degree from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. But he used the housing allowance from his scholarship to care for his mother and sister Sylvia, who has Down syndrome, including paying their expensive medical bills.

Magdaleno's mother worked two jobs as a hotel maid until Magdaleno entered SMU, when ill health and the need to care for Sylvia forced his mother to stop working. As a result, the three were forced to live in a homeless shelter for two years while Magdaleno attended SMU.

Embarrassed that he was homeless, Magdaleno hid the fact from the Cooke Foundation and his professors. He sometimes went to bed hungry and cried himself to sleep, until a professor and others who noticed he had lost a great deal of weight stepped in with food assistance. He graduated as the top public affairs student at SMU.

Today Magdaleno is a U.S. citizen and gives motivational speeches to low-income middle school and high school students, urging them to stay in school and out of trouble. He is dedicating his life to helping young people who struggle as he did more than a decade ago. And he supports his mother and sister so that they are no longer homeless.

The problem of college student homelessness has solutions. For example, Amherst College provides dorm space year-round. Vassar College provides emergency loans. Some schools have established food pantries. Many more such initiatives are needed.

Magdaleno experienced a happy ending to his homelessness. But far too many other students are not so fortunate. Government at all levels and colleges across the country must work together to end this national tragedy.

Former New York City Schools Chancellor Harold O. Levy is executive director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which has awarded about $147 million in scholarships to more than 2,000 high-achieving students from low-income families and $90 million in grants to organizations that serve such students.

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