INDIANAPOLIS — A Northwest Indiana lawmaker wants to know if more students would successfully complete their college degrees, particularly older returning students, if they were confident they had a secure place to live and food to eat.

State Rep. Earl Harris Jr., D-East Chicago, said anecdotal stories of college student homelessness and food insecurity are abundant in both Indiana and across the nation.

"Instead of looking for a good place to study, they are looking for a warm place to sleep at night. Instead of concentrating on their classes, they are preoccupied with finding their next meal," Harris said.

"This instability could potentially impact students' physical and mental health as well as academic performance."

But Harris noted there isn't particularly good data on precisely how many students might be quitting higher education, and closing off that path to a high-paying job, not because they couldn't do the work but due instead to external financial factors.

According to the Lumina Foundation, approximately half of first-year college students are living at or below the poverty level, while many students older than 25, particularly minority students, struggle to simultaneously complete their studies and support their families.

"The state and the universities know it is an issue," Harris said. "But nobody can provide any numbers in terms of how many or what the percentage is."

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That's why Harris plans to sponsor legislation during the 2019 General Assembly directing the Indiana Commission for Higher Education and the state's universities to determine how extensive homelessness and food insecurity is among Hoosier college students.

"We need to figure that out and go at it," Harris said. "We owe it to the future members of our workforce."

Harris explained that at this point he's only looking for legislative approval for an in-depth study of the issue.

Though if it turns out to be as big of a problem as he suspects, Harris said he plans to work in future years with his General Assembly colleagues, universities, businesses, nonprofit organizations and community groups to find ways of remedying it.

Harris said already stakeholders are telling him: "Whatever we can do to help, let's help."

State data show just one in three Hoosiers older than 25 have completed an associate's or higher degree, placing Indiana in the bottom quarter of the 50 states for educational attainment.

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