Texas House Considers Free College For Students Experiencing Homelessness

An estimated 10 percent of college students don’t have permanent housing. One measure would exempt those students from paying tuition.

The student union at Texas Tech University.
The student union at Texas Tech University. Wikimedia/Holzman Moss Bottino Architecture/Sunny Sone

Dewey Marshall has more than $60,000 in student loan debt, and he maxed out on federal aid. To supplement the grants and loans he’s received, he’s worked more part-time jobs over the last seven years than he can remember — delivering produce, as a barista and construction worker, in campus work-study positions. He juggled three jobs at one point and has worked up to 50 hours a week, all while enrolled at Ranger College in North Texas and then at Texas Woman’s University, where he is now in his final semester.

The aid and income he received wasn’t enough to make ends meet. Marshall, now 25, lived out of his car for three months in 2017 and sometimes smoked cigarettes instead of eating because he couldn’t afford meals. During his seven-year college career, he’s been in and out of homelessness, and some semesters chose not to enroll in classes so he could work full time.

Dewey Marshall and state Representative Ana Hernández at the Capitol.  Courtesy/Dewey Marshall

Last week, he testified at the Capitol in favor of House Bill 730, which would exempt students without fixed housing from paying college tuition. “I want to let you know how easy it is to fall back into homelessness whenever you don’t have a college degree,” Marshall told members of the House Committee on Higher Education. “For students experiencing homelessness, it seems like a degree is at the very, very end of a really, really long tunnel with several barriers that [don’t] seem necessary.”

The proposal, by state Representative Ana Hernández, D-Houston, is one of at least two dozen bills filed this session that aim to benefit people experiencing homelessness. HB 730 is also one of at least two House bills — the other by fellow Houston Democrat Shawn Thierry — that focus on college students. A 2018 national study by Temple University found that 9 percent of students at four-year universities and 12 percent of students at two-year colleges were homeless. Black, Native American and LGBTQ students were at the greatest risk of experiencing homelessness, according to the study. More than a third of students said they’re housing insecure, meaning they struggle to pay rent or utilities or need to move frequently. The rates are even higher for students in two-year colleges.

HB 730 would exempt students without a fixed or regular nighttime residence from paying tuition and fees at institutions of higher education, including high school students taking dual credit courses. The exemption, which is estimated to help more than 2,000 students per year, would be limited to 10 semesters or summer sessions and is not open to convicts or registered sex offenders. Students would need to apply annually through a notarized affidavit.

Shawn Thierry, who's practically secured a seat in the Texas House in 2017 thanks to the votes of 13 county precinct chairs.
State Representative Shawn Thierry  Shawn Thierry campaign/official

House Bill 809, by Thierry, would create a homeless liaison at all public colleges — similar to the homeless liaisons required at all school districts under federal law, and college liaisons for former foster children under a Texas law passed in 2015 — who would help students experiencing homelessness find information on housing, food and meal programs, counseling and other campus services. Thierry’s bill would also require colleges to give the students priority when they assign housing. Both HB 809 and HB 730 were left pending last week.

Brett Merfish, director of youth justice for Texas Appleseed, said the organization supports both bills. She believes Thierry’s proposal for a homeless liaison has a strong chance of passing because it’s a relatively simple, low-cost change, given that potential liaisons would already serve in other positions within the school. “Students who have beat the odds and are experiencing homelessness face unique challenges, and they need our support,” Merfish said. “A lot of times, they don’t know what resources exist that are out there to help them. Having someone on campus who … can help them navigate is a great first step.”

Texas Appleseed is also concerned about addressing the needs of housing-insecure students earlier, before they complete high school, Merfish said. The nonprofit is pushing for state funding for school district homeless liaisons, as only 10 percent of Texas school districts receive federal funding for the position and no state funds are earmarked for it.

While Hernández’s bill would likely not cost the state money, since colleges would not be reimbursed for the tuition waiver, Jeanne Stamp, project director at the Texas Homeless Education Office, said she believes colleges may push back if they perceive it as a loss of income.

Hernández wrote in an email that institutions would not be obligated to cover tuition for students under the exemption, and any cost to institutions should be minimal. “It is highly likely that ongoing enrollment growth will absorb any marginal loss in tuition revenue,” she wrote.

University of Texas at Austin spokesperson J.B. Bird declined to comment on any pending legislation, and press officers for Texas A&M University, the University of Houston and Texas Tech University did not respond to requests for comment.

After Marshall gave his testimony before the higher education committee, state Representative Lynn Stucky, R-Denton, asked him whether his chosen career — social work — would allow him to pay off his student debt. “Social workers are very important components to society, but most of them aren’t wealthy,” Stucky said.

State Representative Leo Pacheco, D-San Antonio, asked Marshall if he’d filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. “I got full FAFSA benefits. FAFSA is not enough to live off of,” Marshall said. “That doesn’t make a dent for somebody who’s paying the full cost of living as well as tuition.”

Marshall told the Observer that he found the members’ questions patronizing and indicative of the pervasive stigma around homelessness. “People who experienced homelessness oftentimes know the system better than the policymakers,” he said.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify comments made by representatives of Texas Appleseed and the Texas Homeless Education Office regarding the proposed legislation.

Vicky Camarillo is a legislative fellow at the Texas Observer and a master's candidate in the journalism program at the University of Texas at Austin.

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