"The reality is many young people know that education is the only way they're going to get out of this situation," said Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
Colleges aren't required to keep count of the number of homeless students on their campuses, so there aren't any firm estimates locally or nationally.
But increasing numbers of students applying for assistance are identifying themselves as being homeless on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) - 58,151 students during the 2012-13 school year, up about 8 percent from 2011-12.
Homeless can mean living on the streets, staying in shelters, couch-surfing, or residing in a recovery or transitional program.
When Carter enrolled in college in fall 2011, he was living in a recovery house, stashing many of his belongings in campus lockers. A year later, he got into transitional housing but found it unstable. He moved three times in one semester - during finals. He's in a North Philadelphia rooming house now.
Carter made do on $8,000 a year that he received through federal Pell grant and work-study programs for students from low-income families.
Often, he said, he didn't have enough to eat. But another need was stronger.
"He's just so hungry for learning and change and growth," said Lisa Handler, assistant professor of sociology, who often talked with Carter after class and lent him books. "He is so determined to leave his former life behind and try to forge his way on a new path. It's both inspiring and moving."
Carter states his goal boldly: "I want to become one of the top five criminologists in the United States."
The reason, he said, is personal.
"I want to know why did I grow up in poverty and why did I commit those crimes," he said. "I always knew it wasn't just because of the money."
Born in Houston, Carter was an only child, largely raised by his mother, surrounded by drugs and crime. Before he was born his parents split up. He did well in school, sometimes getting almost straight A's.
When he graduated from high school, he said, his mother told him to get a job or go in the service. He chose the Navy. That wasn't for him, so he enrolled at the University of Houston, dreaming of joining the FBI. Soon he dropped out.
And sank into drug use - PCP - and crime.
He spent three years in prison for robbery, got out in 2000, and found a job as an electrician. But he said he quickly fell back into the life and went to prison for six more years for robbery and other charges.
This time he started taking classes in anger management and coping skills. He was touched by Nelson Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom.
"I thought if he can do it, I can do it," said Carter, a burly former high school football player who sports a beard and mustache.
When he got out of prison in 2009, he worked at a warehouse, but despite being drug-free, he felt himself slipping again. So he packed his belongings in a cardboard box, grabbed his tool bag, and rode a Greyhound bus to Wilmington.
He wound up in a shelter. One day, he saw a flyer for a recovery house in Philadelphia. He made the call.
"They gave me a one-way ticket," he said.
He stayed clean and zeroed in on education and found himself at a North Philadelphia storefront, where he donated $30 worth of blood to pay for his community college application. The college discontinued the application fee in the 2012-13 school year.
At first, he struggled in school. Writing class was particularly tough.
"So I asked a fellow student to tutor me," he said, smiling proudly. "I passed that class with an A."
A year after he enrolled, the college started a program to help homeless students graduate. Administrators had noticed they were struggling, said Claudia Curry, director of the college's Women's Outreach and Advocacy Center.
The 43 students in the program this year got workshops in academic success, financial management, and career planning, as well as a $75 food stipend, a $50 gift card to a local grocer, and $75 for clothes.
Carter opted for every extra opportunity, including a summer program at the University of Pennsylvania.
"He never missed a day of class," said Thomas Doyle, associate professor of justice and Carter's academic adviser. "He would ask thought-provoking questions about the criminal justice system."
Carter said he was graduating with a 3.3 GPA and in the fall become a sociology and criminal justice major at La Salle. He's not sure how he will pay for everything. He hopes for a job and an apartment - a real residence.
One day, he'd like two homes: one in the city, one in the country.
"I feel like anything is possible," he said.
Inquirer Staff Writer Jeremy Roebuck contributed to this article.