Help remains elusive for homeless Michigan college students

[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article inaccurately listed the maximum state scholarship available to college students who were in foster care. The correct maximum is $3,000 per school year.]

Financial support for homeless college students varies wildly among Michigan campuses, and among low-income students raised by relatives.

The patchwork system of aid allows some of Michigan’s most vulnerable students to attend college for free, while others attend universities where no staff member is assigned as a point of contact for homeless students, who like others in extreme poverty are far less likely to complete their degree.

“There are kids out here who are 19 and have gone through more than most people who are 90,” said Joi Rencher, coordinator of the MAGIC program at Eastern Michigan University. Technically, MAGIC is a program for students who grew up in foster care, but Rencher expanded the program to include homeless students.

“There’s this privileged attitude that education is available for everyone if you just work hard enough,” Rencher said. “That’s not the reality. People are out here struggling and they want to go to school.

“I talk to coordinators at other colleges about what they’re dealing with. We get on the phone and cry.”

Homeless college students have received attention in Michigan in recent months through Bridge Magazine’s portrait of Ramone Williams, an EMU senior who was sleeping in the college library and showering in the student recreational facility for a semester with few EMU officials aware that he was homeless.

Williams and the MAGIC program received a flood of donations after Williams’ plight became known. But systemic changes to help other homeless students have been slow to get off the ground.

The fate of students like Williams matters not only to individual students, but to the state as a whole. Michigan is below the national average in percentage of adults with college degrees. Experts say that improving Michigan’s college completion rate is key to boosting family incomes and the state economy as a whole. Low-income students struggle the most to complete college, often because of inadequate financial support.

About 70 percent of teens who were in foster care in Michigan report that they want to attend college, but fewer than 10 percent of those who graduate high school enroll in college, Robin Lott, executive director of the Michigan Education Trust, which administers the scholarship program, told Metro Parent.

While there is no similar data on homeless students, advocates contend that homeless students face many of the same challenges as former foster youth.

More coverage: For inspirational homeless student, graduation day

EMU has held a series of meetings among students and staff to raise awareness of homelessness. But the school has yet to officially designate Rencher as the university’s point of contact for homeless students. Currently, if a faculty member learns a student is homeless, there is no place to refer the student.

That may change soon. The university is considering creating a single point of contact for homeless student issues, according to a presentation made to the Eastern Michigan University Board of Regents April 22.

Students designated as homeless at Michigan State University typically get free tuition and housing through the school’s FAME program. FAME matches students with academic mentors and holds social events. MSU also keeps some dorms open and rents hotel rooms for students who don’t have a place to go over the holidays.

EMU’s MAGIC program provides housing assistance for homeless students now, thanks to more than $50,000 in donations received after the Ramone Williams story went viral.

Wayne State University founded the HIGH program in 2013 to help homeless students, when Jacqueline Wilson, wife of Wayne President M. Roy Wilson, discovered that a Wayne State student was living in a car.

Both the EMU and Wayne State programs offer assistance to homeless students, but both are dependent on donations. Neither programs receives institutional support.

EMU Regent Michelle Crumm told Bridge she has pulled together a group of Washtenaw County community leaders to discuss ideas to obtain a sustainable source of funding for homeless student services at the Ypsilanti campus. That meeting is scheduled to be held Wednesday.

“We have to figure out how to get funding for this,” Crumm said. “This is a manageable issue – it’s a small amount of students.”

Rencher said she worked with six EMU students who were homeless in the fall semester, and is currently working with three homeless students.

Crumm said she also hopes the Legislature will provide financial aid for homeless student programs at Michigan’s 15 public universities.

Since 2009, the state has provided financial aid for college students who were in foster care at age 13 or older. The Fostering Future Scholarship offers up to $3,000 per school year for tuition, fees and housing.

The program doesn’t offer financial aid for students raised in kinship care (children who lived with relatives rather than their parents). Kinship care is more common than foster care, said Lynn Nee, project coordinator for the Kinship Care Resource Center at Michigan State University, which offers training and resources for Michigan families raising the children of relatives.

“Foster children are easily identified,” Nee said. “We’ve accepted that group over time. They’re societally acceptable because we know (their lives) are screwed up. But if you ask the normal person what a kinship child is, they have no idea what you’re talking about.”

There are 13,000 children in foster care in Michigan, and 19,000 in kinship care, according to the U.S. Census.

Former EMU homeless student Williams did not qualify for state foster care college aid because he was raised by his grandmother.

“They (children raised by relatives) are coming in with a lot of the same challenges as foster care children – abuse, neglect, trauma. And they face the same challenges when they go to college. Kinship families have a higher poverty rate than the general population. A lot of them are grandparents on fixed incomes.”

Nee said she is meeting with legislators to try to designate September as kinship awareness month. Down the road, she hopes to get funding for a study of kinship care children.

It’s a slow process. “Just in the past six or seven years, we’ve made great strides for foster youth,” Nee said. “Now we just need to make strides for youth in general.”

EMU’s Rencher hopes those strides happen quickly.

“These are kids carrying the world on their shoulders,” Rencher said. “They’re invisible, and no one knows they need help.”

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William Plumpe
Tue, 04/26/2016 - 10:58am
Why not make arrangements for some kind of community service similar to the military or the Peace Corps but in major urban areas where a homeless college student would get tuition, books and bare bones living expenses to go to school and get a degree? After graduating they would "serve" in a manner similar to the military for six years at urban charitable organizations that help the homeless, veterans and the illiterate making minimum wage thus using community service to pay back the cost of their room and board and education. If they had a small part time job during school to get spending money that would be OK---up to a specified limit. Also good because they would get valuable work experience. Sounds to me like an innovative idea that could be worked out between the college, the student and the State of Michigan. What are we waiting for?
Tue, 04/26/2016 - 12:43pm
Why single out these students for such a program? They have already had it hard enough. Why do they need to pay back the costs of their tuition? Do scholarship recipients need to pay back their scholarships? What about a wealthy student who receives a "full ride"? Should he/she refuse the scholarship because their parents can otherwise afford to pay full tuition? Should they be forced to gift their scholarship to a needy student?
William Plumpe
Tue, 04/26/2016 - 5:49pm
I can't say for sure but I think a homeless person especially one who is working very hard to get their degree might not appreciate the help as much as you'd think. I've worked with homeless people before and know they can be fiercely independent. Besides some type of "payback" not only gives them something to work for but also helps to silence any critics who might say it's just more government welfare. Also their unique perspective on the homeless situation would make them excellent advocates for other homeless people.
Sun, 05/15/2016 - 12:15am
Hi Roya. Thank you for your comments. I agree with you. I posted further comments below.
Tue, 04/26/2016 - 2:22pm
Or... skip the new program and just enlist with Uncle Sam for 4 years and it's taken care of! Would give most kids, if not all, a good experience and maturing exercise whether homeless, foster or growing up with a silver spoon.
William Plumpe
Tue, 04/26/2016 - 2:50pm
Good idea but not everyone is military material. And once you enlist the military not you decides where you're going and and what you're going to do. With war or conflict going on right now involving American troops in various hot spots the military may not be viewed as the best place to spend 4 years. Give applicants an option--- 4 years of military service or 6 years of community service. Then the debt for school---tuition, books and room and board--- is forgiven. Sound good? Let's lobby State and Federal legislators to initiate a program to do just that. I'm going to talk with some of my contacts right after we are done.
Sun, 05/15/2016 - 12:14am
Just joining in on the conversation here. Some very interesting comments. These students deserve the same options and opportunities as any other child. Instead of 6 years of work service to "payback" their college cost, perhaps they plan to go to medical school or graduate school and serve their community in other ways. I think it is not a good idea to limit another persons options. They may have more to offer if we give them the freedom and support to pursue their highest goals and ideals. The youth of today serve all of us with their education. The better educated they are, the better off all of us are. If they become a teacher, a doctor, a construction worker, or whatever, they are helping to create a better world for us all. Let's not lose sight of that.