With official unemployment holding steady at 9.5 percent and with the state budget cuts producing yet more tuition increases, a growing phenomenon is sweeping the nation: homeless and hungry college students.
National Public Radio (NPR) reported in late July: "For many college students and their families, rising tuition costs and a tough economy are presenting new challenges as college bills come in. This has led to a little-known but growing population of financially stressed students, who are facing hunger and sometimes even homelessness."
While no exact figures are available, the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth reports a large increase in homeless students.
"We're hearing from the college presidents and leadership that more and more students are struggling," Michelle Asha Cooper of the Institute for Higher Education told reporters. "Some are taking out pretty large amounts of student loans to finance their education as well as their living costs. Some are enrolling part time, some are even dropping out."
The University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) even created an "Economic Crisis Response Team" to help homeless and hungry students stay enrolled. NPR reported the story of one such UCLA student, Diego Sepulveda, who ended up homeless after losing his full-time job at Subway. Now Sepulveda alternates between sleeping in the library, student center and friend's couches, catching occasional showers in a school gym.
With tuition being jacked up and social services being cut, it has often been left to students--such as Sepulveda's friends--to help each other out. For example, Abdullah Jadallah, a 22-year-old UCLA engineering student, started a food pantry after noticing how many of his classmates were going hungry.
Last year, Washington Post reporter Petula Dvorak chronicled the story of two homeless D.C.-area students, Ronnell Wilson and Miracle Lewis.
Lewis--in her late twenties--had worked as a flight attendant for United Airlines, but decided to go back to school after mass layoffs in 2008. She got a scholarship to study business and took temp jobs to make ends meet. But when temp work "dried up," she found herself living in the Calvary Women's Shelter in Northwest Washington, D.C.
Wilson--also in his twenties--was a forklift operator before he decided to go back to college. He took classes at the University of the District of Colombia during the day, and worked at California Pizza Kitchen at night. Then he got laid off and ended up homeless. Wilson continued to take classes, but had to reorganize his schedule to make sure he could get to the shelter on time to get a place to sleep.
The New York Times similarly reported the story of 22-year-old Fallon Coffer, a homeless college student who worked as a taxi dispatcher at night, and went to class during the day, taking care of her young son in-between.
While hard data on the exact extent of homelessness among college students has not been collected, broader trends are sure to push even more students up to and over the edge.
As Kathryn Edwards and Alexander Fernandez argued in their recent Economic Policy Institute (EPI) briefing paper, "The Kid's Aren't Alright: A Labor Market Analysis of Young Workers," official unemployment for workers aged 16 to 24 peaked at 19.2 percent after the 2008 recession. This is the highest rate since records started being kept in 1948.
Real unemployment--counting involuntary part-time workers and those who have given up looking for work--is probably twice that rate.
"Though young adults represent only 13.4 percent of the workforce," Edwards and Fernandez wrote, "they now account for 26.4 percent of unemployed workers." The unemployment rate for young Black workers stands at 32.5 percent and 24.2 percent for Latinos. Unemployment for teenage workers - aged 16 to 19 - stands at more than 50 percent.
This high level of youth unemployment has a major impact on college students, as so many students must also work in order to make ends meet. In 2008, 45 percent of 16 to 24-year-olds were enrolled in high school or college as well as employed (or looking for work).
With students and their family members losing jobs as tuition increases escalate and social services are cut, more and more students will fall through the tattered social safety net.
Moreover, since the 2008 recession, hunger and homelessness has mushroomed among all age groups. Late last year, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported up to 30 and 40 percent increases in homelessness in several U.S. cities.
One in eight Americans now relies on food donations from the relief charity Feeding America--an increase of 1 million people each week in 2010 over 2006, and a 50 percent increase in the number of children. Similarly, one in eight people in the U.S. rely on food stamps for their daily bread.
Times were already tough before the recession. But before 2008, family members and friends could take up more of the slack. If the parent of a student lost their job, the student could drop out of school for a while and work in order to help the family. Conversely, if students found themselves in trouble, loans and help from family could keep things going until graduation. The breadth of the crisis is sabotaging this privatized welfare system.
To make matters worse, Corporate America is looking for even more ways to take advantage. Business Week has reported an increase in for-profit "educational" outfits--such as the University of Phoenix and Chancellor University--targeting homeless people to fleece them of financial aid money, often leaving them with a mountain of defaulted student loan debt.
These predatory "colleges" are big business. One of Cleveland-based Chancellor University's major investors is "Neutron Jack" Welch, former CEO of General Electric, who got his nickname by firing some 100,000 GE workers. Goldman Sachs owns 38 percent of the for-profit Education Management Corporation in Pittsburgh.
Chancellor and Phoenix have sent recruiters into homeless shelters to sign people up for classes, regardless of their ability to pay or even attend school. After they get tuition money--paid for by student loans and financial aid--these companies can churn through yet more students, never worrying about pesky facts like graduation rates or what happens to their would-be students.
As Business Week notes, this type of predatory "education" isn't new. In past recessions, there was a proliferation of for-profit "trade schools"--which more often than not failed to provide any real training for unemployed blue-collar workers.
"In the Cleveland shelters, you can still find people with trade school debts from 20 years ago," Business Week wrote. "Those who don't repay their student loans [today] may forfeit their chances for public housing and are also ineligible for deferral financial aid to return to college."
As Ardetra Jones, from the Tacoma Rescue Mission told Business Week in 2010, "If the homeless have a bad student loan, they can't find a place to live, they can't go back to school. And in this economy there's not a lot of work. That leaves a person with no options."
On the one hand, college students are being driven into homelessness and hunger. On the other, the homeless and hungry are being preyed upon by for-profit "educational" vultures. George Clinton best summed up this sort of thing when he coined the phrase "America eats its young."
Enough is enough. Education--including higher education--is a human right. Not only should tuition be paid in total, the living expenses of students should be subsidized. Until we win that greater victory, we must meet every instance of cutbacks and tuition hikes with protest and action. Some of our fellow students' very lives are on the line.