For too many middle-class kids struggling in the fall of 2022 to graduate from college in the so-called Golden State, the local Walmart is no longer just a place for back-to-school supplies. For some of California’s thousands of homeless college students, it’s a parking lot destination to sneak into their cars overnight, desperate for a few hours of sleep before staggering back to class the next morning.
“Last year I was homeless for the whole year,” a University of California-Irvine (UCI) student wrote in an anonymous testimonial recently, as part of a student campaign for the university is declaring a housing emergency this fall. “When I contacted the school to let them know I was sleeping in my car, they emailed me suggesting I sleep in Walmart parking lots,” the student wrote. “I come from a low income life and the UCI let me down.”
More testimonials from students trying to get an education while navigating both the stress and high cost of finding accommodation on or near the barren, state-of-the-art Irvine campus – in the heart of the suburbs affluent from Orange County – complain of hopping among sofas with friends every night while looking for a place in Southern California’s overheated rental market, or the stress of falling hair trying to find a bed for the night without failing.
“I lost sleep and got thrown into dangerous episodes because of the stress of not being able to find housing,” another UC-Irvine student wrote. The student wrote that he is a homosexual from a conservative religious family and that it is not possible for him to return home, adding: “I currently live several hundred kilometers from the UCI, if I can’t find accommodation in Irvine, what am I supposed to do?”
Clari Gao, a UC-Irvine junior and student activist who collected and sent me dozens of such testimonials, told me by phone this week that she knew, through her research, about 200 students currently struggling with homelessness. Even officials from California’s flagship public university system acknowledge that the problem is far worse, not just in “the OC,” but across the state.
A 2020 study estimated that about 5% of the University of California’s 285,000 students — which would be nearly 15,000 — are homeless; the rate rises to 10% in the less selective California state system and 20% in community colleges. This year, the end of the pandemic, a statewide push to increase enrollment in public universities, and California’s status as ground zero for a national housing crisis have clearly worsened the crisis. And black and brown youth make up a disproportionate share of homeless students.
State and university officials insist they are working on solutions, and by all accounts, they are. But recent high-profile moves — California Governor Gavin Newsom signed laws for interest-free loans to build student housing and to sidestep the frequent “not in my backyard” lawsuits against new units by campus neighbors , for example – won ‘I won’t help the kid read Plato in a Chevy pickup truck tonight. A more urgent approach comes from administrators at Long Beach City College, who have opened — and kept secure — a campus parking lot for its unhoused students.
Is this a way to manage the American dream?
Even from my vantage point nearly 3,000 miles away, the current collapse of California universities demands our urgent attention for several reasons. On the one hand, students desperate to hang on to the middle class with a college degree, despite its ever-increasing costs, while living in cars and eating out of free pantries aren’t doing it for anything. wacky California socialist thing, no matter what says your Trump-loving uncle. Nationally, a large-scale study conducted last year by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University found that the national rate of homeless students was 14%, and many others are struggling to pay rent or utilities or snag dinner tonight.
The question also illustrates the real issues as America finally begins to debate the crisis we have allowed to fester for at least 40 years: our failure to educate our young people in an age of rapid change. Now, the first small step toward solving the problem and recognizing that higher education in the United States should be a public good — President Biden’s order to cut some $400 million the $1.75 trillion college debt bomb — is under severe assault from conservatives who want to keep knowledge and credentials privatized. They see deans telling kids to find a good overnight space at Walmart not as a national disgrace, but as a sort of “meritocratic” test of their mettle.
I’ve spent a lot of time the past two years digging into both how and why the American Way of College has gone so far off the rails – with public trust and now enrollment plummeting despite evidence that a degree University is the best guarantee of success in an increasingly knowledge-based economy. This fall’s California campus crisis builds on what I explored in my new book: After the Falls of the Ivory Tower: How College Shattered the American Dream and Blew Our Politics – and How to Fix It. Decades of bad decisions and cruel political reactions by so-called adults fail the young people of this country when they turn 18.
READ MORE: America’s Real College Debt: How We Failed an Entire Generation
To hear from right-wing demagogues like the Governor of Florida Ron DeSantis or Texas Senator Ted Cruz tell this story, the average young American applying for student debt forgiveness is a white leftist who borrowed $100,000 for an elite degree in “gender studies” (even in the widest measure, only 0.4% of degrees, in fact) and now works as a Starbucks barista, presumably screwing up latte orders from hard-working Americans like Senator Cruz. This week, conservatives armed that insidious class war with a lawsuit they hope will convince a trumpified Supreme Court to reject Biden’s debt relief and dash the hopes of millions of stressed borrowers.
They deliberately ignore reality, which is the Long Beach student parking lot or the Kutztown University pantry, where kids pick up free mac and cheese or popcorn to spend another week. These kids are black or brown or maybe from depressed Rust Belt towns that voted for Trump, and they’re studying business or engineering because they need the kind of job that will pay back tens of thousands of dollars of debt.
The irony of California as the epicenter of the current crisis is too much to bear. For about a century, until the 1980s, the state kept a legally mandated promise to provide tuition-free higher education to all of its young people. Its rapid growth and rise as the 5th largest economy in the world has been its reward for investing in young people. And yet the baby boomers who benefited from college as an almost free public good then pulled the rug out, all the while drinking in the myth of their own merit. Leave me alone!
A nation that helped win World War II and put a man on the moon with pre-internet technology can solve the college problem if we apply our minds and vast resources. This week, Kevin Carey of the New America Research Group (full disclosure: Carey happened to review my book for the New York Times) launched a series of ideas for making college accessible and affordable beyond the simple debt relief. They include federal incentive dollars for states that make public universities and community colleges free and a doubling of spending on job training programs like apprenticeships for young people who don’t want to attend four-year college. These are ideas that could prevent the next $1.75 trillion debt mountain.
That, too, won’t happen overnight – not until we can replace some of the DeSantis-Cruz types with reformist governors and lawmakers who would rather see their voters under 22 have bright futures than use them as political pawns. But in a fall when the next generation of American leaders must learn political science under the sickly glow of Walmart parking lot lights, the time to start this conversation was yesterday.
» LEARN MORE: SIGN UP: The Will Bunch Newsletter