The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

They overcame poverty to get to college. Then they saw the housing costs.

A Virginia nonprofit is helping students at a time when many need a lot more than just tuition

Sophia Manera has lived through homelessness and foster homes. Now as a student at Aurora University, near Chicago, her own apartment is the next step to a sustainable college life. (Horatio Alger Association)

Hanging the shower curtains made her a little nervous. Just a bit.

She was, after all, a 17-year-old who had endured living out of cars and, later, foster homes. She had entered her junior year of high school at a seventh-grade reading level and caught up enough to be accepted into college. She had, almost as a rebellion against what everyone in her early life expected of her, decided she would thrive academically and otherwise.

But as Sophia Manera, a soon-to-be sophomore at Aurora University outside Chicago, prepared to move into her first apartment this week — the first space she could call her own, the first place where she set the rules — she realized her life had not prepared her yet for the domestic basics.

“I grew up so unstable. We lived out of the car, in a motel or at random people’s houses,” she said. “There was never a point where people were doing regular life things like putting up shower curtains. It is nerve-racking.”

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But she also had learned how a stable space of her own was an essential ingredient for academic success.

“You can’t focus on your studies when you are at school because you are worried about where you are going to sleep at night and where you are going to get food,” she said.

Manera, like thousands of other students across the country, has gotten support from the Horatio Alger Association, an Alexandria-based nonprofit that provides $17 million in scholarships each year to college students from difficult backgrounds. It has given out $245 million to students in all since 1984.

But the social and economic aftershocks of the pandemic have put new demands on philanthropy. Horatio Alger has begun extending the reach of its support to help students cover basic needs such as shelter. The new direction spotlights the growing difficultly many disadvantaged students face completing their higher education as housing costs balloon.

“During the pandemic, many of them didn’t have a place to stay because school was closed,” said David Sokol, Horatio Alger’s chairman emeritus.

In response, members of the association pooled together an emergency quick-relief fund for scholars. Since March, that fund has given out more than $200,000 to 400 students already supported by the nonprofit.

“Maybe it’s just a month’s rent. Maybe it’s just a computer charger they need, but this was just to these folks when they called, no approval needed,” Sokol said.

The new landlord was going to nearly double the rent. These Maryland seniors decided to fight back.

Since 2015, the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice has surveyed students both at two-year and four-year colleges and universities about their basic needs. The latest report, covering 2020, found that 3 out of 5 of the nearly 200,000 students surveyed struggled with food, housing or bills.

The percentage of students facing housing issues also rose. According to the report, 43 percent of four-year students experienced housing insecurity in 2020, up from 35 percent in 2019. At both four- and two-year colleges, 14 percent of students said they experienced homelessness — the first time in the survey’s history that both groups were facing the same level of homelessness.

Low-income students “have survived through high school by creating a cocoon around themselves of guidance counselors, teachers or grandparents,” Sokol said. “All of a sudden, when they go to college, that cocoon is gone.”

Even among students who have their housing covered by Horatio Alger and other scholarships, the prospect of stable housing is still important.

Ninah Jackson, 19, a Bucknell University student originally from Prince George’s County, has not experienced housing displacement personally but says the association’s financial support gives her a buffer from concerns that would take her away from her school work in Africana studies and education.

“This way I don’t have to hustle and bustle with three jobs to pay for school,” she said. “Now maybe I only need to work one.”

Others, like Angel Vigil, 19, were facing a choice between work and class. A student at Arizona State University majoring in medical sciences, Vigil spent his childhood shuttling between family and foster homes both in the United States and in Mexico. A serious medical experience during that time pushed him to want to become a surgeon.

But Vigil’s need to pay for housing meant he had to clock in regularly for shifts behind a grocery store’s meat counter his freshman year.

Horatio Alger’s new emergency fund has allowed him to return to the books. “I did not have enough money on my own to make it through school,” he said.

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In high school, Manera found that school provided her with consistency after living on the streets and landing in foster care. She worked to catch up by taking extra time with a reading specialist and listening to audiobooks to understand how words were pronounced.

But college at Aurora, where she plans to double-major in social work and criminal justice, requires an additional level of focus.

“You want to absorb as much as you can in class,” Manera said. “But if you are constantly working, you don’t have the time for that, or your mind is constantly wondering how you are going to survive and get basic needs when you are in class.”

Her new apartment will ensure she has that space.

“It’s a huge relief,” she said, “to know that I have somewhere to study, somewhere to just be, and I know it won’t be absolute chaos.”