Homeless and in Graduate School

Following the hectic launch of my new book last week, I spent a little time this morning wandering around Center City Philadelphia, collecting my thoughts. Preparing to talk about the ways in which Americans are paying the price for higher education these days on the Daily Show with Trevor Noah (Tuesday), well, it’s both exciting and overwhelming.

And so as I strolled down Chestnut Street near 17th St, I almost fell over a woman sitting on the sidewalk.

Yeah, I was so busy thinking about how to tell Trevor Noah that many college students are dealing with housing and food insecurity, that I nearly tripped over a homeless woman. And seconds later, I saw her sign: “Graduate Student — Homeless at Rutgers.”

I stopped immediately, and sat down to talk with her. She’s a double major in English and women’s studies, and the bills are just too much. She was eager to tell me about her master’s thesis and her classes (I didn’t reveal that I was a professor but my questions led her to guess it within minutes). Most striking was the absence of four front teeth. They appeared to be knocked out. She was a bit bruised.

I had to run to pick up my kids, so couldn’t stay long, but gave her my card and told her to call me. When she does call, I plan to help connect her to programs and services in the city, meet with her if she’s willing to document her story, and perhaps provide some financial support.

In the meantime, though, I offered up a little tweet.

(It should’ve read: This is too real. Sorry)

Within seconds, my first response arrived.

There it is. In 140 characters, this person from Waukesha, Wisconsin pointed to exactly what I must convey to Trevor Noah and the Comedy Central audience on Tuesday: People are going homeless because the new economics of college don’t make any sense.

Here’s the conversation that followed:

A little while later, someone else expressed a similar thought:

Look, these folks doesn’t get it because as they said, things worked out differently for them. I know — you worked in college, so I should too. The problem with this thinking is that times have changed — a lot. Your world is not the world today’s college students face. And even if you are one of today’s college students, you cannot assume that another person’s bad luck is an anomaly that would never happen to you.

So, dear WaukeSlosh, let me provide some examples of how a graduate student (or any undergraduate) might end up homeless despite the “safety net” of student loans:

  1. Bad timing

Or these scenarios, described by a friend on Facebook:

It’s summer time, you don’t have a family to go home to, you have to work full-time to earn money for the next year so you can’t stay in the dorms, and every renter in the city requires a parent to co-sign (and yours won’t and even if they did, they would not pass the background check).

2. Even with loans, money falls short of the bills.

Again, from Facebook:

You sign up for work study which reduces your loan options. You discover that you cannot work enough hours to cover the gap between tuition, room & board, and books. Financial aid calculates what your family should pay. They pay nothing. You are shit out of luck.

3. Eviction. Domestic violence. Roommate problems.

For the record, I think that’s what happened to the woman I met today.

These things happen to smart, hard-working people. Some — the bravest — are even willing to share their stories in a public forum.

The good news is that there is so much that we can and should do. Carving out affordable housing options to create “mixed-income” housing on and off campuses should be a must. Emergency housing options ought to be available at every school. The rules governing federal and state housing assistance programs should be revised when they undermine college enrollment, etc.

And in the meantime, there’s just doing something.

My response to that? Our newly created FAST Fund. Please check it out, and think about it the next time you pass someone on the street and offer up judgment.

It’s time to wake up America. We’ve abdicated our responsibilities. Education is invaluable. Putting a price on it, especially prices like these, are doing real harm.

See you Tuesday.