Making It Easier for Homeless Youths to Get Cash for College

Changes to the FAFSA will streamline the process of obtaining loans and grants.
(Photo: John Greim/Getty Images)
Jun 30, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Getting financial aid to help pay the cost of college just got a little easier for the nation’s homeless students. On Tuesday the Department of Education announced changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that will make the form more consistent and efficient for youths who don’t live at home with their parents.

In a letter to Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who has written to the DOE several times about homeless youths, Education Secretary John B. King Jr. wrote that the department would “clarify and simplify” the language in the FAFSA and streamline the application process.

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“Higher education can often be a ticket to the middle class, and we should be doing absolutely everything we can to make it easier for students to apply and to attend college,” wrote Murray on her Facebook page about the administration’s announcement. The changes “will correct inconsistencies and burdensome requirements on the FAFSA form that deeply impact unaccompanied homeless students.”

In particular, the department will adopt one standard definition of homeless youth, and students who have previously been determined to be unaccompanied homeless youths will be able to automatically select that status every time they fill out the FAFSA. Also, students who are 22 and 23 and still enrolled in college will have “a more streamlined process for determining their independent status” beginning with the 2018–19 award year, King wrote.

Barbara Duffield, the director of policy and programs at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth, told TakePart she’s hopeful the changes will remove some of the “tremendous barriers” and “provide a path for homeless students to continue their education if they’re already in school and they’re still 24—or to start it if they started school late.”

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Streamlining the definition of youth will be “enormously helpful because it doesn’t make sense to have one policy if you’re an unaccompanied homeless youth and you’re 19 and another set of rules and policies if you’re 21,” Duffield said.

“There was a big inconsistency in the policy because the Department of Education has defined youth, for homeless youth, as being 21 and under, but in order to get financial aid, you have to show parental income if you’re 24 and under,” she said.

Easing access to financial aid for older homeless youths is significant because of how long it takes the typical college student to complete a degree. According to a 2014 study by the higher education advocacy group Complete College America, only about 19 percent of students attending a public university finish their degree within four years. Young people aren’t always completing college at 22.

But according to federal regulations, students can’t be declared independent until they’re 24 or older, said Duffield. “If you’re under 24, you have to show parental contribution, you have to have access to that information, but for youth who are homeless and entirely on their own, you can’t get that information,” she said. That has meant they’re out of luck when filling out the FAFSA.

The changes will also keep young people from having to dig up paperwork proving their homeless status every year or trying to track down parental information. “They were grilled about very traumatic things in their lives or about their inability to get paperwork,” Duffield said.

Although roughly 56,000 people identified as homeless on their FAFSA application in 2014, it’s unclear how many students nationwide are homeless. “There’s very little data that’s kept at all on students who are experiencing homelessness on campus. The financial aid data that is collected is limited to people who check those questions,” Duffield said.

A study released last week of students enrolled in the California State University system gives one hint of the scope of the problem. It found that one in 10 students is homeless. Soup kitchens and other organizations that feed college students who don’t have enough cash for food are also becoming more common.

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Although the changes to the FAFSA will make it easier for homeless students to get loans and grants, Duffield cautioned that more policy work needs to be done to help these students be successful in school.

“Financial aid is the first step, but we have seen students struggling with a lack of a place to sleep on breaks, so that’s a huge crisis item,” she said. Requiring every college to have “a single point of contact for homeless and foster youth to help them have a plan to have housing during breaks” would help.

“There is a misperception that homeless youth are so consumed with survival that higher education is a luxury and not something they should be doing—that they should be focused on basic needs like getting a job,” Duffield said. “But...the way out of homelessness is higher education. It’s true for people living in poverty, but it’s especially true for students who’ve had the kind of trauma that the homeless experience.”