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Financial Aid Rules Put College Further From Homeless, Foster Students' Reach

Guest post by Carmen Constantinescu

Homeless and foster youths are less likely than other young people to attend college —and when they do enroll, most cannot earn their degree within the first six years of attendance, suggests a report published this month by the U.S. Government Accountability Office. 

Based on data from the National Postsecondary Aid Survey (NPSAS) 2013-2014, only 14 percent of homeless and foster youth who enrolled in college in 2003-2004 had completed the program by 2009 compared to 49 percent their counterparts.  Also, these youth predominantly pursue admission to public higher education programs rather than private institutions, with more than half seeking an associate degree.

foster youth gao.JPG

Homeless and foster youths face common challenges when considering higher education, according to the report.

"From elementary school through high school, [...] many homeless and foster youth have weak academic foundations for college because of their frequent moves from school to school," notes the report. "They also typically have few supportive family members or other adults they can turn to for help and advice about how to apply for, enroll, and stay in college, [...] and their financial resources for college are limited." 

Indeed, 65 percent of 650 foster youths who were interviewed for an earlier study had changed schools seven or more times through grades K-12, which can lead to truancy and lower academic performance. Such students as a result were often unprepared to either meet college admission requirements or have the necessary prerequisites to take college-level courses. Also, students' continual struggle to find financial resources and stable housing leaves them with little time to spend on school-related tasks.     

Most Homeless Students Don't Know About Financial Help for College

Homeless and foster youth have access to a few specific federal student aid programs, such as the Pell Grant, the William D. Ford Direct Loan Program, the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program (for students up to grade 12). But these programs frequently present systemic barriers to college participation for homeless youths, the GOA found.

While foster youth only have to disclose their foster status once during their initial financial aid application, homeless youths are expected to provide extensive documentation every year they apply to prove they don't have a permanent residence. Delayed processing of their homeless determination has caused some students to  skip a semester and some "have been dropped from their classes after not receiving aid by the college's deadline." One student cited in the report "lost her work-study funding and other financial aid" due to the delays. These, when combined with the practice of repeating application processes for homeless students, present a constant reminder for these youths about personal situations that may be associated with stigma or trauma, which further discourages them to pursue financial aid.

This, as the report identifies it, is a preventable challenge since the College Cost Reduction and Access Act allows college financial counselors to accept evidence of status via less cumbersome methods (such as in-person interviews rather than requesting historic documentation). 

The GAO calls for a joint study by the federal education and health departments to identify more viable assistance options for homeless and foster youth as well as simplify application procedures for financial aid for these students. The authors also recommend improving the navigability of the sections of the U.S. Education Department's website that address assistance opportunities for homeless and foster students.

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