Skip to main content

One in Ten College Students Experiences Homelessness. One NC University is Making a Difference.

By Jesse Thomas | December 15, 2021 | Community Health, Investments, Public Health Challenges

College students walking on campus

It’s the holiday season, and for many families, this is a special time of homecoming, as college students scattered across the state are welcomed back into the fold to enjoy food and festivities with loved ones.

But not every college student has a home base to return to once exams are done.

One recent study found that a third of college students experienced housing insecurity in some form. Nine percent identified as homeless. When a student faces housing insecurity or homelessness, this creates a significant barrier to academic success, which could potentially lead to life-long health disparities and chronic conditions.

As a member of University of North Carolina at Pembroke’s Board of Trustees, I’m particularly proud to see the university I serve take action to address this issue head-on. By providing a sense of community and support to those who might feel on the margins, UNC Pembroke’s ASPIRE Program is making a difference in young peoples’ lives… and in the long-term health of our communities.

Making a Difference in Robeson County

Over the last few months, leaders from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina (Blue Cross NC) have been on a listening tour, hearing from North Carolinians who are going “the extra mile” to make our state stronger. At every stop in our ongoing Extra Miles Tour, members of our executive leadership team are meeting with members, non-profit leaders, educators and change makers in the communities we serve.

On a recent stop in Robeson and Scotland Counties, they visited UNC Pembroke. There, they heard about the ASPIRE Program, which provides homeless students mentorship, community, assistance securing school supplies and other forms of support that can help them stay on track to success. Dr. Tamara Savage, assistant professor in the Department of Social Work, initiated the program a few years ago because she understood the challenges first-hand: She had experienced homelessness herself while studying at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Today, her efforts are making a tangible and significant impact on student’s lives.

The Blue Cross NC leaders on this tour stop were keen to hear more about this homegrown effort. Why? Because education is a significant driver of health. As the gateway to employment opportunities and economic mobility, academic achievement is strongly associated with better health outcomes, improved well-being and higher quality of life.

The ASPIRE Program serves as a powerful illustration of how relatively modest gestures at the community level can get underserved youth on course to a brighter future. They can have an enormous long-term impact on the vitality of our state.

Every Youth Needs Support Transitioning to Independent Living

Similar efforts to help youth make a successful transition to adulthood are unfolding in communities across the state, and they aren’t just happening on college campuses.

Open Table is a nonprofit organization that helps transform communities by helping people with complex needs acquire the social capital essential for success. With support from Blue Cross NC’s Healthy Blue Medicaid plan, Open Table is launching its Table Models in North Carolina.

At the center of this approach is a “table” of volunteers that meets weekly with individuals who are transitioning out of foster care. These meetings create a healthy environment, and help participants move forward with a goal-oriented approach toward independent living. By building long-lasting supportive relationships between volunteers and participants, the program helps participants secure better job and educational opportunities.

In Durham, the LIFE Skills Foundation supports transition-age youth so that their first steps toward independent living are successful ones. Through individually tailored programming, the LIFE Skills Foundation helps those without family or community support networks develop the life skills they need to find success in six key areas: housing, employment, education, health and wellness, financial literacy, communication and network building.

Learning and Well-being Go Hand in Hand

Young adults aren’t done learning when they finish high school. Whether they go on to college or begin seeking career opportunities, they’re still absorbing the skills and knowledge that will guide their adult lives. It’s not just the information in books that these people need. They also need to learn how to do everyday tasks: budget management, preventative care routines that promote good health, healthy meal planning and grocery shopping, job interview skills, and so on.

When someone doesn’t have a home or a reliable support network, it’s considerably more difficult to acquire these indispensable skills. These are the skills that will influence a person’s capacity to access the non-medical resources essential to well-being, such as food, transportation, social connections and housing.

Blue Cross NC supports these and other similar programs designed to give young North Carolinians an equitable shot at happiness and good health. Why? Because we are driven by our purpose to improve the health and well-being of our customers and communities–we won’t stop until health care is better for all. We recognize that good health depends on so much more than what happens in doctors’ offices and hospitals. Good health begins in our homes, at our schools and in our communities.