How Unnecessary Paperwork Leaves Homeless College Students Behind

Jovontae Sisco, 22, uses a computer at the Ruth Ellis Center, a drop-in shelter for LGBT — lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender youth in Detroit, Friday, March 2, 2012. CREDIT: PAUL SANCYA, AP
Jovontae Sisco, 22, uses a computer at the Ruth Ellis Center, a drop-in shelter for LGBT — lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender youth in Detroit, Friday, March 2, 2012. CREDIT: PAUL SANCYA, AP

A young man, whom we’ll call Jack, was excited about attending the college of his choice — but quickly found himself trapped in a bureaucratic nightmare.

In order to access the financial aid he was entitled to, Jack had to document the fact that he was homeless. His financial aid officer told him he needed his high school to verify his homelessness, and even though Jack wasn’t homeless in high school, the financial aid officers would not relent. They would not confirm his homelessness.

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Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University, recounted Jack’s story in an interview with ThinkProgress. She said she’s distressed by a system that doesn’t provide the incentives to show compassion toward students like him.

It wasn’t necessary for Jack’s college to require verification of his homeless status from his high school, however, Goldrick-Rab pointed out. “The aid office has the right to make their own determination, to do this interview with him and verify it for him and they didn’t want to. The larger issue is they don’t want to,” she said.

In the conversation about whether students can afford the rising cost of tuition and all of the other expenses that come with college life, our focus is typically on middle class students, whom we usually expect to pursue higher education. We tend to forget those on the economic fringes who can’t even afford to put a roof over the heads, but who are determined to get a degree so that they can eventually achieve a decent quality of life. These students tend not have parental support — their parents may have been abusive, which could be what led them to leave home in the first place — and programs that served their needs in high school no longer do.

According to a survey on economic insecurity among community college students released last year by the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, one in five students went hungry in the last 30 days due to lack of money and 13 percent were homeless in the last year, despite most of these students having financial aid and jobs.

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While homeless students may have been served by legislation that helps them access support services during their K-12 years, they often fall through the cracks as they get older, which makes it increasingly difficult to attend college. A new report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) shows just how pervasive and damaging these gaps in support are.

Kassidy Suarez, 22, a trans woman, pictured above, was rejected by her family as a teenager. She dropped out of school and became homeless. Thanks to Project SAFE, she now has housing, counseling, and is getting her GED. CREDIT: Lynne Sladky
Kassidy Suarez, 22, a trans woman, pictured above, was rejected by her family as a teenager. She dropped out of school and became homeless. Thanks to Project SAFE, she now has housing, counseling, and is getting her GED. CREDIT: Lynne Sladky

How unnecessary paperwork leaves homeless students behind

One of the biggest hurdles facing homeless youth who want to attend college is the same one that Jack faced: the need to document their homelessness.

In order to receive aid, homeless students have to provide this documentation every year they are attending college. According to the GAO report, it’s unlikely that a homeless student’s financial picture will radically change while they are in school, so students must overcome this hurdle every year. Some financial aid officers even put students in a situation where they are asked to “justify” their homelessness, a process that can leave them feeling ashamed and dissuades them continuing with the verification process.

It is often difficult for students to get the right people to confirm their homeless status. In the K-12 school system, homeless students have liaisons — called “McKinney-Vento liaisons,” after the law mandating protections for homeless students — to help advocate for them. In theory, if these liaisons have kept in touch with students and know their history, they could verify students’ homeless status for financial aid officers. But in practice, there is a lot of confusion on all sides. The liaison is either told by financial aid officers that they can’t verify the student’s homelessness while they’re still in high school or it happens the other way around where the financial aid officers ask students to go back to the liaison to verify the student’s homelessness but the liaison believes they no longer can after the student leaves high school.

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And at colleges themselves, advocates argue that financial aid officers and their bosses need more encouragement to change the culture that de-incentivizes officers from simply conducting an interviewing and determining students’ homeless status themselves. Although the U.S. Department of Education provided guidance to financial aid officers in a “Dear Colleague” letter last year, more needs to be done, experts on homeless youth say.

“It was actually a very good letter, but forcing people to do it is something else,” Barbara Duffield, director of policy and programs for the National Association of Homeless Children and Youth, said. “A ‘Dear Colleague’ needs to be coupled with very specific training.”

According to Duffield, department officials should monitor financial aid administrators to make sure they don’t turn away students because they don’t have documentation, and should do more to encourage them to use their power to make their own determination. The department could also encourage financial aid administrators to use one form that makes it clear what is required of students.

“We know one of the biggest tragedies is students who just give up.”

There’s also a problem with how the the FAFSA form defines “youth,” currently defined as being age 21 and younger. The 2007 College Cost Reduction and Access Act does not provide an age limit when mentioning “unaccompanied youth,” but says it as it is defined in the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act. The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act says they are considered dependent for the purposes of financial aid until age 24.

But page 10 of the FAFSA for the 2016–2017 school year still defines “youth” as 21 years of age or younger, which confuses financial aid officers, leading them to provide misinformation to students, saying that they need to file a dependency status appeal because he or she would age out of being an unaccompanied homeless youth. Duffield said her organization and others advocating for homeless youth are asking the government to clear this up on the FAFSA form.

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“They’re not yet independent and at the same time, they don’t have access to parental information. We see that again and again,” Duffield said.

When students need parent information because they aren’t yet independent, students sometimes go see their abusive parents to get a signature on the FAFSA form. The report cites “Colorado officials” who know of incidents where students were attacked by parents after asking for a signature on a FAFSA form. A FAFSA form is considered incomplete until a financial aid officer can confirm their homelessness, and that process can take weeks.

“We know one of the biggest tragedies is students who just give up, because they think there is no way they can get in touch with that person, and they just stop. There’s no way to assess the scale of that — but based on the number of students who do contact us either directly or through their school liaison, I think probably it’s a sizable number,” Duffield said.

Students’ lack of economic security at college

Once students do get into college and have access to financial aid, there are still major challenges ahead. Often, they still don’t have enough money to afford a place to live or to feed themselves properly. Sometimes students skip meals or sleep outside to afford their education. Goldrick-Rab said that public universities don’t have many incentives to lower the cost of housing and food, because those operations bring in much-needed financial assistance that states aren’t providing to the universities.

“They are looking at their food and housing operations as profit-making enterprises. They can’t make it any other way. They can’t make enough money off of the state so they look to these places these auxiliary enterprises,” Goldrick-Rab said.

This is also just one more example of how difficult it is for anyone to find affordable housing. According to data from a U.S. Department of Housing And Urban Development report released last year, room-and-board costs increased 54 percent at public four-year institutions and 44 percent at private four-year institutions from the 1993–1994 school year to 2013–2014 school year. The increase for room and board at two-year colleges was much lower, at 14 percent.

“What is going on in this country?”

“We would be remiss not to notice that this is part of the lack of affordable housing in this country. How did we think for a second that this wasn’t going to affect the college students too? The only way that we could have missed it is if we thought [homeless students] would never go to college,” Goldrick-Rab said.

Instead of lowering these costs or providing affordable housing, Goldrick-Rab says universities are providing Band-Aid solutions that may look good on the surface but show how warped priorities on the part of university administrations. She pointed to the Bruin Homeless Shelter at UCLA, which also served the UCLA homeless student population, in comparison to the approach of other universities to create affordable housing units or consider repurposing university space.

“A flagship public university is going to have a homeless shelter that is intended in part to serve its own students. That just shocked me when I first heard it,” Goldrick-Rab said. “What is going on in this country? The folks running the shelter are not blame for this. They’re doing what they can do in the context of what they’ve been allowed to do, but UCLA is not taking a look, to the best of my knowledge, at its housing situation and what it’s charging people and who it’s making money off of.”

What universities and the department can do

Although plenty of work still needs to be done to ensure that homeless students can attend college and finish college, experts on student homelessness say they are confident the department is aware of the problems and is working on potential solutions. Goldrick-Rab said she’s confident that the education secretary, John King, who was confirmed as secretary in March, considers this a priority.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, signed by the president last year, also acknowledges homeless students through two important amendments to McKinney-Vento, Duffield explained. One provision requires counselors to ensure homeless youth are advised and prepared for college and another provision requires that liaisons tell students about the requirements for what they need to present to access financial aid and inform them that they can get help obtaining verification of homelessness. Duffield said that a McKinney-Vento liaison in college would also be very helpful for homeless students.

In terms of pending legislation, Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) has also introduced the Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act, which requires the government provide clear instructions to colleges for making determinations about a student’s independence and requires programs to be more proactive about preparing homeless and foster students for college. The legislation would also streamline the process for determining eligibility for financial aid for homeless students.

Goldrick-Rab said she was also encouraged by Rep. Bobby Scott’s (D-VA) decision to introduce an amendment to the Child Nutrition Act expanding the National School Lunch Program to college students. Although he withdrew the amendment, the idea was introduced into the national record, which is one step forward for improving homeless students’ quality of life on campus.

She also points to initiatives such as Oregon State University’s decision to set up emergency housing for students by setting aside housing units within its existing campus housing and the Tacoma Housing Authority’s partnership with Tacoma Community College to make part of its subsidized housing unit available to the community college’s students. She says it’s one way to approach the problem from a long-term view.

“It’s like, ‘Isn’t it great if we invest in these community college students and they use our housing to get their degree and then they’ll never need our housing again?’” Goldrick-Rab said.

Update:

Earlier language was incorrect regarding legislative actions on Rep. Bobby Scott’s (D-VA)’s proposed amendment to the Child Nutrition Act. The language has since been changed.