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Harnessing Data to Fight Housing Insecurity Among College Students

By Michelle Hodara | July 19, 2021

Michelle Hodara
Michelle Hodara leads research and evaluation projects on programs, policies and practices that improve students' college access and success.

Too many college students face uncertainty about where they will sleep at night—and that insecurity can negatively impact students' well-being, persistence in school, and graduation.1,2

REL Northwest's new infographic, which summarizes data from existing studies, shows that nearly half of all college students have experienced housing insecurity, a difficulty or inability to access safe, adequate, and affordable housing.3

Data on the prevalence of housing insecurity among college students and its negative impacts underscore the need to take action. Data can also guide efforts to fight housing insecurity—for example, by identifying which students are most likely to experience housing insecurity and why.

In partnership with the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice and with the College Housing Assistance Program (CHAP) in Tacoma, Washington, REL Northwest recently analyzed data to better understand the CHAP student population and their experiences navigating the housing market. CHAP is a unique partnership between the Tacoma Housing Authority and Tacoma Community College that began in 2014 and has been providing rental assistance to about 150 students experiencing housing insecurity per year.4

In our analysis, we sought answers to several key questions: Who are the Tacoma Community College students experiencing homelessness, and who are the students experiencing near homelessness? Why are they experiencing housing insecurity? What are the characteristics of students who secure housing, and what was their experience with the housing process?

We found that during the study time period (2017–2019), 422 students applied for housing assistance through CHAP: Among these students, 296 were near homeless and 126 were homeless. On the CHAP application, students reported different reasons for experiencing housing insecurity. For example, students were most likely to indicate they were near homeless because they experienced a medical issue (33 percent of near-homeless students) or a loss of income (28 percent). By contrast, students were most likely to indicate they were homeless because they experienced a loss of income (30 percent of homeless students) or were new to Tacoma (29 percent).

A better understanding of who experiences housing insecurity and why could inform more targeted evidence-based solutions, such as those highlighted in our infographic. For example, knowing that CHAP participants are most likely to experience homelessness due to a loss of income, CHAP could aim to provide students with emergency aid in the form of cash grants. Similarly, because medical issues are the most common reason for near-homelessness, students might benefit from more support accessing public benefits related to health care.

This project is just one example of how REL programs across the United States use data and research to improve academic outcomes for college students. Learn more about how the REL program supports college student success.

1 Hallett, R. E., & Freas, A. (2018). Community college students’ experiences with homelessness and housing insecurity. Community College Journal of Research and Practice. 42(10), 724-739.
2 Silva, M. R., Kleinert, W. L., Sheppard, A. V., Cantrell, K. A., Freeman-Coppadge, D. J., Tsoy, E., et al. (2017). The relationship between food security, housing stability, and school performance among college students in an urban university. Journal of College Student Retention: Research, Theory and Practice. 19(3), 284-299.
3 Cox, R., Henwood, B., Rice, E., & Wenzel, S. (2017). Roadmap to a unified measure of housing insecurity. CESR-Schaeffer Working Paper No. 2016-013. Retrieved from; as cited in Broton, K. M. (2020). A review of estimates of housing insecurity and homelessness among students in US higher education. Journal of Social Distress and Homelessness, 29(1), 25-38.
4 Tacoma Housing Authority. (2019). College Housing Assistance Program: A summary. (Revised March 18). Tacoma, WA: Author. Retrieved July 30, 2020, from