Community college students struggle with affordable housing
Low-income housing especially needed
LANSING — As a lack of affordable housing in the state continues to confront low-income residents, many community college students are feeling the brunt of out-of-reach rent.
The National Postsecondary Student Aid Study by the U.S. Department of Education found that, nationally, 8% of community college students experienced homelessness in 2020.
Brandy Johnson, the president of the Michigan Community College Association, said housing — especially affordable housing for low-income students — is an area of focus for the organization.
“The cost of living has become so high that it’s really difficult to afford a place (to live) when you’re a low-income community college student trying to make a better life for yourself,” Johnson said.
There are 31 community colleges in the state, including three tribal colleges. Most of those without housing provide resources for students to find off-campus options in the area.
Colleges and universities can propose potential building projects for state funding.
However, Johnson said, that is a “big process,” and community colleges must match 50% of the funding supplied by the state.
In addition, under the current funding structure, housing is not an allowable project for colleges because it is “seen as an enterprise or asset,” according to Johnson.
The association is urging the Legislature to make housing projects eligible for the funding program. It is proposing around $40 million to develop projects at approximately eight community colleges that need or want to provide options for their students.
West Shore Community College in Scottville does not offer on-campus housing, but college President Scott Ward said it has been exploring options and studying the feasibility of providing housing.
“The three greatest barriers for student success are food, housing and transportation, and we want to remove those barriers,” Ward said.
The top priority for the college, as identified by its board of trustees and master plan, is housing.
In addition, Ward said the student senate at West Shore has identified living opportunities as a priority for three years in a row after one of the group’s recent presidents experienced homelessness.
Ward cited housing as one of the greatest challenges for economic development and communities throughout the state and said he believes alleviating housing inaccessibility would benefit the entire community.
“Not only are we looking at how it helps our students, but how we can have a better impact on the community overall,” Ward said.
Ward applauded the state government and governor for their “tremendous job” of investing in higher education through scholarship programs such as the Michigan Achievement Scholarship, Michigan Reconnect and Future for Frontliners.
“Those are all wonderful programs and a huge investment by the state, but we often see these scholarships are not addressing the greatest barriers for our students – food, housing and transportation,” Ward said.
While community colleges have been traditionally commuter schools, 12 already offer on-campus housing. They include Monroe Community College, Northwestern Michigan College in Traverse City, North Central Michigan College in Petoskey, Kirtland Community College in Roscommon, Gogebic Community College in Iron Mountain, Southwestern MIchigan College in Dowagiac and Bay College in Escanaba.
Alpena Community College has 16 four-bedroom apartments with a capacity of 64 students. The apartments are priced by bedroom at $500 per month with a nine-month lease and come mostly furnished.
Don MacMaster, the president of Alpena Community College, said those apartments have been at capacity for the last six years, while the demand is around double what is available.
MacMaster said occupational programs and athletics bring many students from outside Northeast Michigan, with the out-of-towners needing convenient housing.
“In the past, we would have opportunities downtown for students to rent and commute, but that is not available since the rental market grew so tight,” MacMaster said.
MacMaster said the college is looking to expand its housing by an additional 48 beds, which would not fully accommodate the number of students in need of housing, but would help meet the demand.
MacMaster said he believes adding additional housing would increase both the college’s enrollment and retention by removing a barrier to degree completion.
“We aren’t building over capacity like some of the universities have – we’re heading in the opposite direction and don’t have enough room for the students that want to come here,” Ward said.