When Imperial Valley College (IVC) conducted a student survey seven years ago, it found that more than 200 students were experiencing food and housing insecurity. The findings prompted the creation of a basic needs support program on campus, including the IVC Kitchen, which provides emergency food and groceries to hungry students.
During a visit to the kitchen, the then Dean of Student Services, Dr. Lennor Johnson met a married couple who were both studying at IVC, earning over 3.0 GPAs, and living out of their cars.
“It hit a nerve,” said Johnson, now IVC president and superintendent. “If you know anything about El Centro and our region, we are in the middle of the desert. In the summer it can be well over 125 degrees—[living out of your car] not sustainable.”
That’s when he and other executives at IVC began exploring the idea of student housing. Through the pilot program, which offered 12 housing-insecure students homes in RVs, Johnson said IVC learned many lessons about the difficulties and triumphs of residential management, how to support students and how to build community. While it was difficult, Johnson said the decision to invest in housing for their students was “so worth it.”
“When you start a housing program designed to support homeless students, the message spreads quickly: we’re not just a school, we’re a place you can call home, and everywhere you turn there’s someone to support, coach and encourage you. Johnson said. “No matter how big or small the problems are, we will try to solve them or solve them for you.”
Student housing is extremely rare at California community colleges, although affordable housing is becoming increasingly difficult to find. The average household income needed to afford rent and utilities is $81,191. Yet of the 116 community colleges in the California system, only 12 have student housing and only 14 have quick-moving programs such as hotel or motel vouchers, deposit assistance or move-in assistance.
Of the 1.8 million participants in the system, there is current accommodation capacity for only 2,369 students. A 2019 survey of nearly 40,000 California community college students found that 60% of respondents said they did not have secure housing in 2018, according to The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, an action research center that works to make higher education fairer.
In 2021, the California government allocated $2 billion over three years through the College Student Housing Grant Program and the Capacity Expansion Grant Program, which provides one-time grants to support the construction and renovation of housing on or near campus. Grants may also support the creation of catering facilities or student support spaces such as essential needs centres.
“Residual effect [of having housing] it really speaks to the commitment of the campus community and the community at large to ensure that our students are successful,” Johnson said. “More students are actively coming forward and asking for help. There is no shame or guilt. It really created a culture of care that we’ve been nurturing for some time.”
After its pilot RV program, IVC expanded its partnership with the city to build a 26-unit tiny house community just four miles from campus for homeless or foster care students. The average student GPA before enrolling in the housing program was 1.9. After settling into their homes, their average GPA rose to 2.6.
Now IVC hopes to once again expand its housing options. They won the grant in partnership with the four-year San Diego State University, whose El Centro branch campus is just 11 miles away from IVC. The two institutions hope to build housing for an additional 20 students if they can raise the additional $5 million needed to break ground, as planned in 2024.
Orange Coast College (OCC) in Costa Mesa offers the most housing of any community college in California – their residential center The Harbor, which opened in late 2020, has 800 beds in apartment-style dormitories.
“Our student population is over 16,000 students,” said Dr. Angelica Suarez, president of OCC, “obviously, 800 students at The Harbor is a fraction of that. There is a waiting list that only reinforces the commitment and mission we have pursued as we move forward in building student housing.”
Suarez said OCC began seriously considering housing about a decade ago, long before the state committed resources to the projects. To build The Harbour, they teamed up with The Scion Group, which operates student accommodation on 78 campuses across the country. Scion brought necessary experience in how to create an environment that fosters student success and a sense of belonging, Suarez said.
With new state grants available, Suarez and her team are discussing what it would take to build additional living space — but first she wants to make sure OCC is able to fully support those students currently living on campus soil.
Since the start of the spring semester, Suarez said she has met several students who have expressed their gratitude for the accommodations provided by The Harbour. The vibrant community helped them better connect with the student life, activities and support services OCC offers.
“Making that connection helps with the transition [to higher education]Suarez said. “We know what we’ve been through in the last two years with the pandemic, the isolation and the impact it’s had on students. Being on campus, feeling connected and engaged is important.”
Liann Herder can be reached at email@example.com.