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Gayle Davis

ENG 3020

Professor Thomas Trimble

17 April, 2017

Student Poverty and Homelessness: A Surprising Epidemic


The problem of poverty is one that is well known, and has been a prevalent topic in both

research, government policy, and volunteerism efforts. We see this problem worldwide, and yet

we still wait for a solution. However, when individuals think of poverty, they often think of the

stereotypical homeless men and women who stand on street corners with signs, soliciting

passerby for money, work, or food, or our minds may wander to struggling families who barely

make it by, living at or beneath the poverty line. A group that many do not immediately think of

when they hear the words “homeless” or “living in poverty” is college students. College students

are known to scrape by eating Ramen Noodles and scrounging up loose change in order to go

out, but it is an uncommon thought to think of a University student sleeping in their car, or couch

surfing between friends in order to have a roof over their heads.

The state of a student’s economic situation when entering college is not the only thing

that can cause a student to be living in poverty. It is just as common for a student who is in a

good financial place to fall into the throws of poverty and homelessness. The effects of poverty

on college students could be perceived as a direr problem because the inability to pay for

education can mean dropping out. While the poverty of students at the elementary and high

school levels is still an issue that negatively impacts many, these students are required by law to

continue attending school. This means that although their education may be impacted by

problems at home, they are still receiving the state mandated, common core curriculum offered

by public schools.

Seeing as I am a college student myself, and completed my service hours required for the

semester with a program that works with homeless and suffering students, I will be focusing my

research on the issue of student poverty at the college level. Specifically, I would like to evaluate

the level of seriousness of the issue of student poverty and homelessness among college students.

In order to determine the seriousness of this problem I will be looking at the stress level, dropout

rates, and nutritional requirements of college students that suffer from homelessness or who are

surviving at or below the poverty line.


Poverty can cause problems for students that make it difficult to learn, sometimes

sabotaging a student’s ability to remain in school or to be successful. Paying to continue your

education is expensive, regardless of whether you decide to attend a university –public or

private-, a community college, or a trade school. A majority of students who attend public

schools and universities are considered to be low-income, and many struggle to afford the extra

costs of school supplies, let alone housing, and the proper food needed to maintain a healthy

lifestyle (“Rising Costs”). While teachers and schools often do what they can to accommodate

these students, it is still a hardship, and student’s education suffers because of it. The problem of

student poverty is very apparent in the United States and creates an unfair playing field for

competing students.

Stress. College students of all different economic backgrounds experience immense stress

as a result of their education. Deadlines, papers, and presentations can all attribute to this stress,

so imagine having to deal with all of the normal stressors of a college student, but also adding in

the stress of not knowing where you’ll be sleeping that evening, or where your next meal will be

coming from. In research done by a professor at Wayne State University, Paul A. Toro,

homelessness was compared to the stress level of youth. His findings showed a clear relationship

between both emotional distress and homelessness and also between stress and homelessness

(Toro). According to Toro’s research, as time goes on, a homeless individual’s stress level

remains relatively constant, however it remains constant at a level that is clearly higher than that

of their financially secure, housed, counterpart (Toro). However, a homeless individual’s

emotional distress level was found to decrease over time, but again, this level still remained

higher than their housed counterpart (Toro). Poverty stricken students often work jobs in addition

to their education in order to try and better their situations. The necessity of working long hours

in order to improve financial situations without a doubt adds additional stress to these students

(Maile). These students are then forced to juggle work along with their studies and already

stressful, uncertain living situations. Large amounts of stress aren’t healthy for anyone, and can

have negative impacts on a student’s academic performance. High levels of stress have been

associated with other poor health habits, which then also contribute to poor academic

performance (Hudd). When under high amounts of stress, individuals often make other decisions

that negatively affect their health and mental well-being. These decisions can include adopting

an erratic eating schedule, not getting enough sleep, and can also cause various mental ailments

such as suicidal thoughts (Hudd). When an individual’s body is going through this type of

withdrawal from what it needs, the mind is not going to be functioning at its full capacity. Even

more serious is the type of psychological issues that high amounts of stress can cause, suicide is

clearly a very serious and permanent thing to be thinking about because of the amount of stress

that you are under. Stress is already something that is very prevalent on college campuses, the

added stress of living in poverty, or being out of a home, can be unbearable to some students, and

unhealthy to all.

Dropout rates. Students who find themselves in a situation where they are homeless, or

where they are struggling to pay for life’s necessities may have no other option than to leave

school. Paying for college is a tremendous financial responsibility to take on, so when it comes

to the choice between a degree and a roof over one’s head, it isn’t uncommon for the “roof” to be

the choice. Amongst college dropouts in the United States, 60% had no assistance from their

parents in paying for tuition (Beckstead). The commitment to paying for a college education,

especially at such a young age with little to no assets, is clearly a large enough source of stress

that 60% of students were unable to handle it. However, students do not necessarily have to be

on their own paying for college in order for it to be enough of a problem that dropping out is the

only option. Many families who do decide to support their children financially in going to school

are unable to offer enough monetary support, and students again are faced with the possibility of

dropping out. According to a study done amongst students who had dropped out of higher

education, 70% of these students were in the category “low economic status” (Maile). The

relationship between economic status and dropout rates has been consistent with these findings.

When students dropout, it is not only a clear problem for them, seeing as they don’t finish their

degrees, but it also costs the institutions money. In America, our dropout rates are much higher

than other countries worldwide. These high rates contribute to the problems we so commonly

hear about, such as rising tuition. With fewer and fewer students finishing their degrees, state

resources are spread thin amongst the many students, which then drives up the cost of college

tuition (Weissmann). College dropouts rarely make more than individuals who did attain a

degree. With a smaller income than initially expected, college dropouts often are unable to pay

back their student loans. This then negatively affects taxpayers and other future students who

hope to take out loans in order to finance their education (Weissmann). The inability for students

to finance their higher educations has not only a negative effect on them, themselves, but also the

American environment for attaining aid in financing for one’s continued education.

Nutritional requirements. Proper nutrition is imperative to a healthy lifestyle. Many think

immediately of body image when they hear the previous sentence, but nutrition is also a vital

part of your mental health as well. Without the proper vitamins and nutrients from your diet, your

brain will not be able to function properly (Leyse-Wallace). Lack of proper nutrition can not only

have a negative effect on student learning, but also on a student’s general well-being. Food banks

have been popping up on college campuses across the country, seeking to provide the necessary

nutrition for students as a part of the epidemic that is food insecurity. Individuals who suffer

from food insecurity are described as people who lack access to enough food for an active,

healthy lifestyle (Saul). Students who are suffering financially have been known to cut out

spending on food before they will cut spending on other things such as books or housing. A study

was recently done by the Wisconsin Hope Lab, which focused on Pell Grant recipients because

of the large proportion of them who live at or below the poverty line. This study found that 71%

of Pell recipients have changed their eating habits as a result of what they could afford, 27%

reported eating less than they should, and 7% reported going an entire day without food because

of their inability to afford it (Data, and brief). The lack of proper nutrition can have a negative

impact on student performance, as well as provide another source of stress for struggling college



Sampling Method. For my research I conducted interviews. I used my volunteer

experience as well as the help of a fellow college students in order to find my interviewees.

These interviews consisted of open-ended questions that were tailored for each interviewee. For

example, a student that I interviewed about student poverty was asked much different questions

than an employee of the HIGH program was asked. I also had to be careful to make sure that my

questions were in no way too invasive or offensive when interviewing a student who had

experience with this topic. I was not as successful as I had hoped to be in the collection of my

information. Due to privacy policies at the HIGH program, the identities of the students that they

provide aid to are kept extremely private, and as a result I had to search high and low for students

to interview, this is where the assistance of fellow college students came into play. Although

student’s identities at the HIGH program are extremely sensitive, I was able to interview the

manager of the program, Laura Bismack. While this exchange was easy and convenient, finding

the students to interview proved to be much more difficult than I was expecting. I was directed

towards Oakland Community College, where I was able to locate one student who had suffered

with housing issues, and they agreed to an interview so long as their responses remained

anonymous. This was the only student that has had experience with my topic that I was able to

find for an interview. Through my work as a HIGH program volunteer I also gathered

information from students who suffered with student poverty and homelessness, through

anonymous testimonials. I also tried reaching out to the first lady of the university, Jaqueline

Wilson, the founder of the HIGH program, but as one would expect, she’s very busy, and was

unable to sit for an interview. Mrs. Wilson did however look over Mrs. Bismack’s responses to

my questions and approve them before I was able to use them in my research. I also conducted

an interview with a representative from The W Food Bank, a recently established food bank on

campus that provides different food and toiletry items to students in need.

Setting. The interviews were conducted in two different ways. My interview with Laura

had to be done by sending her a list of my questions and allotting her a few days’ time to get

back to me with her responses. Laura, as mentioned earlier, had to also send her responses to

Mrs. Wilson to get approval, because she was speaking on behalf on the HIGH program. So in a

way I also got Mrs. Wilson’s input. The times that I volunteered didn’t allow for me to sit down

with Laura because of conflicting schedules, so the written response method proved to be most

efficient for this particular situation. My interview with the anonymous student, who we will

refer to as Student A, was conducted in person, at a Starbucks coffee shop. This interview was

not recorded for privacy purposes, instead notes were taken during the interview. This student

was eager to help, excited to share their story in a meaningful way. My time spent at the HIGH

program provided me with insight into the issue of student homelessness and poverty. During my

time volunteering for the program I helped to create a newsletter, which featured personal

testimonials of students who had received aid from the program. Through helping with this task I

had the opportunity to read through several different anonymous student testimonials about how

the HIGH program has affected them, and how student poverty or homelessness had also taken a

toll on them before receiving help. I looked at these as another great source of information about

the topic, seeing as I couldn’t directly interview any of the students due to the privacy policies in

place. A select group of these testimonials can be found on the HIGH program’s website,

however there is a much larger collection of them that have not been published to the website

which were made available to me as a volunteer. My interview with The W Food Pantry was a

last minute addition to my collected research. The W Food Pantry is located on campus, beneath

the Towers dormitories. The Food Bank was started just this year, and has officially opened for

business. It was because of my last minute decision to try and collect information from a

representative of the food bank that I was forced to send the questions again, over email. With

such a small window of time, a meeting was not possible, this proved to be the most efficient,

logical method.

Participants. The interviewees for my project offered great information and viewpoints

into the problem of student poverty. Laura Bismack, the first interviewee, serves as Mrs.

Wilson’s secretary, and coordinates many of the things that happen at the HIGH program. Laura

assigns tasks to volunteers, schedules meetings, and directs projects for the program. Laura

agreed to being interviewed, but warned me that her responses would have to be approved by

Mrs. Wilson, and that there was also a possibility that her responses would have to be looked at

by another professor studying student poverty, Paul Toro, before she returned them back to me.

While she looked at this as an inconvenience to the timeline of my project, I saw it as beneficial

that I would be getting so many different, knowledgeable, viewpoints on the questions before

using them for my project. I found Student A by asking friends and acquaintances that are also

attending college if they knew of anyone who had suffered from homelessness or poverty as a

student. I was directed towards Student A, and when approached, they agreed to an interview so

long as their privacy was a top priority. This student had a story to share about their past, and is

now in a much better financial place. This student is currently enrolled at Oakland Community

College, attending classes full time in hopes of receiving their associates degree. The student

testimonials, which are kept completely anonymous by the HIGH program, offered me with an

array of different students who had experienced some sort of problem with either homelessness

or poverty as a student. These students had all sought help from the HIGH program, and received

it seeing as they were writing testimonials. The students who had written these testimonials came

from all different backgrounds, and were all in various stages of their lives. The interview that I

conducted with The W Food Bank also proved to provide me again with another insight into

student poverty and homelessness. A representative from the program was very kind and

understanding of my time constraints, getting back with me in a timely manner. The W Food

Bank is a member of Gleaner’s Food Bank, a well-known, reputable food bank in the Detroit



The results of this study have provided me with a broad array of different information

about what it is like to be a college student affected by homelessness or poverty. My primary

research, while focused on investigating my three criterion, also exposed me to other effects that

poverty can have on students. The factors of stress, dropout rates, and nutrition were all

commonly brought up when discussing the negative effects of student poverty. Through

interviewing and researching people who hold various points of view on the issue, I have found

that there is a general consensus on these effects and what they mean to a student’s ability to

complete their education.

Through my interview with Laura Bismack, which focused on the effects of student

poverty on the students who are suffering financially. I was exposed to additional ideas about

how living in poverty can negatively impact a student’s ability to succeed in their education.

Laura brought to my attention that while suffering from the negative impacts of stress that

student poverty can put on an individual, it may be difficult to form healthy relationships

(Personal Interview, Laura). With a lack of sleep, a hungry stomach, and an abundance of stress,

forming and fostering healthy relationships does not become a priority. The absence of these

healthy relationships, whether it be with fellow students or with faculty, causes these students to

miss out on a support system that would be especially beneficial in their lives while they

navigate through the struggles of student poverty (Personal Interview, Laura). With this lack of

socialization students suffer. Loneliness and depression can become very possible, adding to the

list of ailments that stress can have on the body.

Student A, who has successfully beaten student poverty, and who is now on their way to

attaining their associates degree from Oakland Community College, offered a point of view that

was very beneficial to my research. Having the opportunity to interview someone who has

experienced what it is like to live in poverty as a student allowed me again to validate my

criterion. Student A fell into poverty when they were forced out of their home upon their

graduation from high school, going to school was the route that Student A decided to take,

working part-time in order to pay for an apartment (Personal Interview, Student A). When

Student A lost their job, rent became a huge struggle to be paid, and dropping out of school

became a very real possibility.

When asked about the impact that this time of economic turmoil had on their day-to-day

life, Student A responded that “I had to make some hard decisions about where to spend my time

and money,” (Personal Interview, Student A). While Student A did not lose their apartment

during their time of need, they were faced with difficult decisions about where to cut spending.

For Student A, one particular cut back was that of their grocery bill, making cheaper choices and

also fewer choices (Personal Interview, Student A). I was excited when I found this direct

connection between a personal experience and one of my criterion. Student A also discussed the

immense amount of stress that they were under during this time, reciting to me all of the physical

ailments that came along with it including, breakouts, weight loss, and the inability to sleep

(Personal Interview, Student A).

The student testimonials that I was able to read through during my time at the HIGH

program also validated my criteria for what makes student homelessness and poverty a serious

problem. The testimonials were written by students who were all in very different situations, but

experiencing the same negative effects of poverty. The testimonials ranged from students fresh

out of high school struggling to support themselves financially, to students who were much older

and had just gone through divorce or had lost their jobs. One thing that several of the

testimonials had in common was that these students often faced the possibility of having to drop

out of school because of their situations (System).

The W Food Bank offered me with an interesting point of view when it came to my

criteria of nutrition. With a direct link between students and the food that they needed, the food

bank on campus saw firsthand the effects of food insecurity. The W Food Bank allows students

who are suffering financially to come in and get the groceries that they need for no cost. Food

insecurity on college campuses has become a pressing problem over recent years, and similar

food banks to the W have been started across the country (Personal Interview, The W). The

creation of these food banks recognizes the problem of student poverty, and works to divert some

of the negative effects on students. The availability of food to students in need could be the

difference of going to class on an empty stomach, or taking an exam after studying while

listening to a grumbling stomach. These conditions are not ideal for maximum retention of

information, student learning suffers when students are hungry (Personal Interview, The W).


Significance of Findings. My initial goal in conducting the interviews and research that I

did about student poverty was to evaluate how serious the problem was. I used the factors of

stress, dropout rates, and nutrition as my criteria to judge the extent of the issue. Before

beginning this project, I was amongst the majority of people, who, when asked about the

problem of poverty or homelessness, did not think of the college student population as one of the

large demographics affected by the problem. The amount of stress that college students are under

can seem overwhelming at times, but many of these students do not also have to deal with the

uncertainty that living in poverty entails. The added stress of this living situation infringes on a

student’s ability to focus their full efforts on school, as well as takes a toll on a student’s health,

both mental and physical. Students who are living in poverty, as seen by the HIGH program, can

often find themselves in this situation because they lack a support system (Personal Interview,

Laura). The lack of a support system is another huge source of stress for students, seeing as they

have no one to turn to in their times of need, this also negatively affects student’s mental health.

In our advancing world, we are seeing that more and more, a college degree is becoming the

norm, and required for many jobs. While it is completely possible to get a job without a college

degree, there is much higher competition for better paying jobs, and a college degree can be the

difference between being the hired candidate, or being sent on the job search once again. This

emphasis on the importance of a college degree in the workforce is important to consider when

analyzing the seriousness of student poverty because this problem can play a part in barring

students from graduating, and thus hurting them when they’re competing for jobs. Another

negative effect of student poverty is food insecurity. When a student is unsure of where their next

meal will come from, or changes their eating habits because of their financial situation, they are

experiencing food insecurity (Personal Interview, The W). Studies have shown that when a

student goes hungry, they perform worse than they would have otherwise. The availability of

food in places like The W Food Pantry is a step in the right direction, however, many students

shy away from visiting food banks like these because they’re embarrassed of their situations

(Personal Interview, The W). Impoverished students often make the choice of paying for

education before they decide to pay for food, in the long run, this negatively affects their learning

as well as their health.

Limitations of Study. While I do see many positive aspects of the study that I conducted,

I also know that there were places where there could have been improvement. One of the main

barriers that I faced when trying to collect my data was that of privacy. The HIGH program, and

Student A were both very serious about privacy and I had to be very careful to respect these

wishes. The HIGH program’s privacy policy proved to be more difficult to maneuver around

than Student A’s privacy wishes. The HIGH program could have opened the door to countless

student interviews with students who had beaten student poverty. While I did have several

different points of view, I think that it would have been beneficial to the validity of my

evaluation of the problem of student poverty if I had several student interviews about personal

experiences with attending college while living in poverty. Another limitation that I faced was

that of time. It wasn’t until midweek the week prior to this paper being due that I had decided to

make “nutrition” one of the criteria for analyzing the seriousness of the problem of student

poverty and homelessness. It is because of this late realization that my interview with The W

Food Bank was so rushed. If I had more time to conduct this interview I would have been able to

gather better questions, and schedule a time to conduct the interview in person so that I could use

follow up questions to gather more information.

Questions for Further Study: Seeing as I came to the realization of the topic for my study much

later than would have been preferred, I did struggle with a few time constraints. If I were to

continue with this study, I would like to do add a few aspects. One of the things that I would add

to the study would be a larger group of student interviews about their experience with student

poverty and the impacts it had on their education. I feel as if my sample size of one student,

while it does offer great insight, does not do the issue of student poverty justice. Another aspect

that I would like to add to the study if I were to take it further would be an anonymous survey

that I would send out to my classmates about student poverty. I would include in this survey both

questions about the perceptions of student poverty and also questions about if students had

experienced any situations of poverty or homelessness at the college level. This would then have

the potential to add to my sample of students who have gone through the hardships of student



My findings opened my eyes to the various problems that go along with student poverty.

Being naïve, the only main problem that I associated with student poverty was the inability to

finance an education. However, through the research that I conducted, I have discovered that

there are many other impacts that living in poverty has on students. Among the many effects

student poverty and homelessness can have on college students are that of stress, increased

dropout rates, and proper nutrition. These are the three criteria that I focused on through my

research in order to help me to determine the seriousness of the problem. The effects of student

poverty are all very interrelated, and I found that it is uncommon to see one of the effects without

the others. Often times, one effect can cause another, or vice versa. However, the main,

underlying cause for all of these effects is student poverty. Through my research I have learned a

lot about these different effects and their impacts on a student’s education. First, I have learned

about all of the different ways that stress can effect an individual’s body and mind. The added

stress of living in poverty is a big one, and so the stress levels of students who are living in

poverty are visibly higher than your average student. Living with these levels of stress is

unhealthy, and has even been known to lead students to thoughts of suicide. Second, I learned

about the impact that dropout rates have not only on the students who are dropping out, but also

on the institution that is being left, and the entire system for borrowing money. I hadn’t realized

that by dropping out of school, a student can cost university thousands of dollars, and have a

negative impact on how money is borrowed for future students who are trying to finance their

educations. Lastly, I learned about food insecurity, and about how it is a problem that is sweeping

the nation. Having access to enough, nutritional, food is very important to a student’s success.

Eating enough and eating healthy can contribute to a student’s learning by having positive effects

on an individual’s attention span and ability to retain information. The information that I

gathered on my three criterion proved to be extensive and helpful in analyzing the seriousness of

the problem of student poverty and homelessness. I have learned that this issue is a bigger one

than I had initially thought, and after conducting my research, I believe that it is a problem that

deserves more attention than it is receiving currently. The issue of student poverty is not an issue

that is isolated to college campuses, this issue leaks out into society, impacting several others

than just the impoverished students. It is because of this widespread impact, and detrimental

health effects on students living in poverty that I would classify student poverty and

homelessness as a serious problem.

Works Cited

Beckstead, Rachel. "Statistics of College Dropouts." Online Colleges and Degrees |

College Atlas. N.p., 13 Mar. 2017. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.

Communications, Wayne State University Web. "Dean of Students Office." The W Food

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Data, and Brief. What We’re Learning: Food and Housing Insecurity among College

Students (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 17 Apr. 2017.

Hudd, Suzanne S. "Stress at College: Effects on Health Habits, Health Status, and Self-

Esteem." N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Apr. 2017.

Leyse-Wallace, Ruth. Nutrition and Mental Health. Boca Raton, FL: CRC, 2013. Print.

Maile, Simeone. "Education and Poverty Reduction Strategies." N.p., n.d. Web.

13 Apr. 2017.

Personal Interview. Laura Bismack. 17 Apr. 2017.

Personal Interview. Student A. 15 Apr. 2017.

Personal Interview. The W Food Bank. 22 Apr. 2017.

"Rising Costs + Greater Student Poverty = Empty Backpacks." Targeted News ServiceJul

29 2015. ProQuest. Web. 1 Apr. 2017 .

Saul, Stephanie. "Food Pantries Address a Growing Hunger Problem at Colleges." The

New York Times. The New York Times, 22 June 2016. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.

System, WCS Content Management. "Testimonials - High Program - Wayne State

University." Wayne State High Program. N.p., n.d. Web. 25 Apr. 2017.

Toro, Paul A. "Preventing Youth Gun Violence: What We Know and Still Need to Know."

PsycEXTRA Dataset (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 20 Apr. 2017.

Weissmann, Jordan. "America’s Awful College Dropout Rates, in Four Charts." Slate

Magazine. N.p., 19 Nov. 2014. Web. 24 Apr. 2017.