A college campus.

A college campus. Credit: iStock

Sep. 30—For too many middle-class kids struggling in the fraught fall of 2022 to get a college diploma in the so-called Golden State, the local Walmart is no longer just a place for back-to-school supplies. For some of California's thousands of unhoused university students, it's a parking-lot destination to furtively hide in their car overnight, desperately seeking a few hours of sleep before staggering back to the next morning's classes.

"Last year, I was unhoused for the entire year," wrote one University of California-Irvine (UCI) student recently in an anonymous testimonial, part of a student push to get the university to declare a housing emergency this fall. "When I reached out to the school letting them know I was sleeping in my car, they sent me an email suggesting I sleep in Walmart parking lots," the student wrote. "I came from a low income life, and UCI failed me."

Other testimonials from students trying to get an education while navigating both the stress and the high cost of finding a place to live on or near the sterile ultramodern Irvine campus — in the heart of Orange County's affluent suburbs — complain of hopping nightly among friends' couches while looking for a place in South California's overheated rental market, or of hair-falling-out stress trying to find a nightly bed without flunking out.

"I have lost sleep and been thrown into dangerous episodes over the stress of being unable to find housing," wrote another UC-Irvine student. The student wrote that he is a gay man from a conservative religious family, and that it is not possible for him to return home, adding: "I live several hundred miles away from UCI currently, if I am unable to find housing in Irvine, what am I supposed to do?",

A 2020 study estimated about 5% of the University of California's 285,000 students — which would be nearly 15,000 — experience homelessness; the rate rises to 10% in the less-selective California State system and a whopping 20% at community colleges. This year, the winding down of the pandemic, a statewide push to boost public-university enrollment, and California's status as Ground Zero for a national housing crisis has clearly made the crunch worse. And Black and brown youth make up a disproportionate share of students without housing.

State and university officials insist they're working on solutions, and by all accounts, they are. But recent high-profile moves — California governor Gavin Newsom signing laws for no-interest loans to build student housing and to short-circuit frequent "not-in-my-backyard" lawsuits against new units by campus neighbors, for example — won't help the kid reading Plato inside a Chevy van tonight. A more urgent approach comes from administrators at Long Beach City College, who opened up — and maintain security at — a campus parking lot for its unhoused students.

Is this any way to run the American Dream?

Even from my vantage point nearly 3,000 miles away, the current meltdown at California's universities demands our urgent attention for a couple of reasons. For one thing, students desperate to cling to the middle class with a college diploma, despite its endlessly rising costs, while living in cars and eating from free food pantries, aren't doing it out of some wacky California socialist thing, regardless of what your Trump-loving uncle says. Nationwide, a large-scale study last year by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University found the national rate of student homelessness at 14%, with many more struggling to pay rent or utilities or scrounge up tonight's dinner.,

I've spent a lot of time these last couple years digging into both the how and why the American Way of College went so far off the rails — with public confidence and now enrollment in free fall despite the evidence that a college degree is the best guarantee of success in an economy increasingly built on knowledge. This fall's California campus crunch builds on what what I explored in my new book: After the Ivory Tower Falls: How College Broke the American Dream and Blew Up Our Politics — and How to Fix It. Decades of bad decisions and cruel backlash politics from the alleged grown-ups are failing this nation's young people when they turn 18.

America's real college debt: How we failed an entire generation

To hear right-wing demagogues like Florida's governor Ron DeSantis or Texas Sen. Ted Cruz tell this story, the average young American asking for student-debt cancellation is a white leftist who borrowed $100,000 for an elite degree in "gender studies" (even in the broadest possible measure, just 0.4% of degrees, in reality) and now works as a Starbucks barista, presumably screwing up the latte orders of hard-working Americans like Sen. Cruz. This week, conservatives weaponized this insidious class warfare with a lawsuit they hope will convince a Trumpified Supreme Court to throw out Biden's debt relief and dash the hopes of millions of stressed-out borrowers.

They willfully ignore reality, which is the student parking lot at Long Beach or the food pantry at Kutztown University, where kids pick up free mac-and-cheese or popcorn to scrimp through another week. These kids are Black or brown or maybe hail from depressed Rust Belt towns that voted for Trump, and they study business or engineering because they need the kind of job that will pay off tens of thousands of dollars in debt.,

A nation that helped win World War II and put a man on the moon with pre-internet technology can solve the college problem if we apply our minds and our vast resources. This week, Kevin Carey of the New America research group (full disclosure: Carey coincidentally reviewed my book for the New York Times) floated a series of ideas to make college accessible and affordable beyond merely wiping out debt. They include federal incentive dollars for states that make public universities and community college tuition-free and a doubling of spending on job-training programs like apprenticeships for young people who don't want to attend four-year college. These are ideas that could prevent the next $1.75 trillion mountain of debt.

This, too, will not happen overnight — not until we can replace some of the DeSantis-Cruz types with reform-minded governors and lawmakers who'd rather see their under-22 constituents have a nice future than use them as political pawns. But in an autumn when America's next generation of leaders has to learn political science under the sickly glow of the Walmart parking-lot lights, the moment to start this conversation was yesterday.