Barriers to Financial Aid for Homeless Youth Now Compounded by COVID-19, New Report Warns

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter

For homeless youth the prospect of pursuing a higher education has been a daunting task, and while FAFSA completion rates for this vulnerable cohort have increased in recent years, a new report has found a decrease in the number of determinations made by financial aid administrators.

The report from SchoolHouse Connection, a national non-profit organization working to overcome homelessness through education, examines six years of financial aid data for unaccompanied homeless youth (UHY). The data demonstrates continued barriers to these students’ financial aid access, which in the era of the coronavirus pandemic could exacerbate their traumas and financial stability.

However, there were some positive developments in the data. The number of FAFSA applicants who were determined to be UHY increased by 38% over the past six years, with nearly three quarters (73.5%) of this increase occurring between the 2016-17 and 2018-19 academic years. The report credits some of this increase to the enactment and implementation of amendments to federal K-12 education law that aimed to improve homeless youth’s access to financial aid.

Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, said the data — particularly a recent 4% decrease in determinations from aid administrators — shows why more work needs to be done on behalf of homeless youth.

“The reluctance of financial aid administrators to make UHY FAFSA determinations creates tremendous barriers for some of our most marginalized young people,” the report reads.

Not only are there economic factors at play with the coronavirus, but there are also mental components that have retraumatized homeless youth in higher education. 

“Many of the students that we work with in our program are kind of reliving earlier evictions,” Duffield said. “One of the young men in our program talked about the closures of the dorms triggering him because it reminded him of his evictions when he was in high school, so there's a lot of need.”

While the overall number of UHY determinations by federal homeless service providers has increased over the past two years, the aggregate six-year data did not show an increase in the number of young people in homeless youth programs being informed about — and assisted to obtain — the documentation they need to access financial aid.

Prior to the onset of the ongoing pandemic, states were making inroads with providing higher education assistance to homeless youth.

Over the six-year period from 2013-18, the number of FAFSA applicants determined to be unaccompanied homeless youth increased by more than 50% with three states — Montana, Utah and Wyoming — seeing increases of more than 100%. Over the two-year period from 2016-18, the number of FAFSA applicants determined to be unaccompanied homeless youth increased in six states, with Arizona, California, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, and Wyoming having increases of more than 40%.

However, SchoolHouse Connection said these improvements were not enough and that a number of states could be struggling to meet the needs of homeless youth.

“Any state that didn't show an increase is concerning. Homelessness has been on the increase over these past six years,” Duffield said. “I would say any of the states that are showing a decrease are of concern and really require looking into and seeing what's happening, both on the K-12 side and also on the postsecondary side.”

While homeless youth face many challenges related to basic necessities, Duffield said providing assistance for higher education can help to break the cycle of homelessness. 

“People may assume that because a youth is experiencing homelessness, the fight for survival would take precedence over the fight for higher education,” Duffield said. “We really need to listen to young people where they see their future and how they see higher education as the way out of homelessness. We have an opportunity to really support these young people to not be homeless again and to make sure that their children are never homeless again.”


Publication Date: 10/13/2020

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