Viewpoints

Forget rich parents buying admission. Here’s California’s real college scandal

UC Berkeley student Ty Perez walks to class with a box of food from the Food Pantry on campus in December 2016. Perez found himself homeless during that fall semester when an apartment arrangement fell apart. He was able to find housing when he connected with the Homeless Student Union.
UC Berkeley student Ty Perez walks to class with a box of food from the Food Pantry on campus in December 2016. Perez found himself homeless during that fall semester when an apartment arrangement fell apart. He was able to find housing when he connected with the Homeless Student Union. aseng@sacbee.com

Alexis spent her years in the foster care system dreaming of going to college. She was proud to enroll in community college at the age of 17. That dream, however, came crashing up against reality when she turned 18 and found herself homeless.

Sleeping in her car, changing locations each night to avoid the dangers of the street, and lacking access to a consistent space to study, shower or charge her phone — all while trying to attend classes and work full-time — proved to be too much. She dropped out.

While the recent college admissions scandal ensnared a handful of wealthy parents, there are thousands of students, like Alexis, who are ensnared by a much deeper and more troubling problem: student homelessness.

In today’s economy, a post-secondary credential is essential. Over the past decade, the nation’s economy has gained 11 million jobs that require a post-secondary credential while simultaneously losing 5 million jobs that can be secured with a high school diploma or less.

Court documents released Tuesdays shows dozens of celebrities and coaches have been charged with participating in a college admissions scam to get their children into prestigious schools.

And yet the gap in college completion rates between students from the bottom and top fifths of the income ladder has grown markedly in the past decade.

Contributing to this disparity is the fact that California is having a crisis of homelessness among its college students. According to a 2019 report, 1 in 5 community college students in California experienced an episode of homelessness within the last 12 months.

The same is true for 11 percent of California State University students and 5 percent of UC students. Homelessness disproportionately impacts particular student subgroups. African American and Native American students, as well as those with experience in foster care or who were veterans, experienced significantly higher rates of homelessness than their peers.

Opinion

Despite this reality, California lacks any targeted intervention to prevent and end homelessness among college students. The California State Legislature now has an opportunity to change that by enacting and funding Senate Bill 568, authored by Sen. Anthony Portantino (D-La Canada-Flintridge), Sen. Richard Roth (D-Riverside) and Assemblyman Jesse Gabriel (D-Los Angeles).

SB 568 would provide funding for California colleges and universities to implement a college-focused rapid rehousing program. These programs would provide housing search support, rental assistance and intensive case management to quickly move students from homelessness into housing coupled with meaningful, sustained connections to post-secondary education. The bill would require institutions that receive state funding to leverage other available resources and ensure that homeless students are receiving all available financial aid.

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John Burton

Access to higher education, whether a vocational certificate, associate degree, bachelor’s degree or beyond, is critical to help low-income youth move out of poverty. For low-income students whose academic prospects are already precarious, the experience of homelessness is extremely destabilizing and makes college completion unlikely.

These young people are at a key crossroads in their lives. Without intervention, the likelihood that they will enter the ranks of the chronically homeless increases markedly. Conversely, an investment in securing housing stability for individuals already on the path to a college degree can take these youth in a dramatically different and significantly more positive direction.

Today, Alexis is 22 and still fighting to complete her college degree. Being homeless set her back, but it didn’t make her give up on her dreams.

SB 568 would have helped. She could have remained enrolled full time and maintained financial aid. SB 568 will make that possible for thousands of college students who are homeless today. SB 568 deserves the strong support of the California State Legislature and the governor.

Sen. John Burton is the former president of the California State Senate and a former member of Congress. He is currently the chair of John Burton Advocates for Youth.

Monique Graham, a fourth-year communication and dance major at Sacramento State, is $40,000 in debt from student loans. She explains how one proposal by Assembly Democrats' would help her.

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