Bill Seeks to Resolve Barriers for Homeless and Foster Youth

By Joan Berkes, Policy & Federal Relations Staff

Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) introduced the Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act on November 10. This bill seeks to resolve a number of issues that continue to pose barriers to higher education for unaccompanied youths who are either homeless or self-supporting and at risk of homelessness.

The bill would revise the definition of independent student status by removing the language that limits determinations of homelessness by designated officials to the year in which the FAFSA is submitted. Rather than requiring unaccompanied students to have their status re-determined every year, the bill would extend the validity of the determination through age 23 unless conflicting information exists, or the student informs the institution that he or she is no longer homeless. Thus, it would bridge the gap between the year of entry into higher education and the point at which the student’s age makes him or her independent.

The bill introduces more flexibility to the identification of officials who can make the determination, and clarifies when and how a determination might need to be verified. The bill emphasizes that only the fact that a determination has been made would be verified, not the basis of the decision. In other words, a financial aid administrator (FAA) should not second-guess legitimate determinations of homelessness unless factual conflicting information exists (that is, the FAA’s disagreement with the authorized individual’s determination does not constitute conflicting information, much in the same way the Department of Education (ED) is not permitted to second-guess professional judgment decisions). If no other determination is available to a student, the bill would require the FAA to arrive at a decision regarding independent status, based solely on the statutory definitions of unaccompanied youth and homelessness. Unlike professional judgment decisions, the FAA would not be permitted to request documentation of the student’s reason for being unaccompanied and homeless or at risk when making the determination.

The bill would permit use of a determination made as early as the year before the award year for which the student initially submits an application. This timing should accommodate the earlier application cycle that will result from use of prior-prior year income.

The bill would add a definition of “foster care children and youth” to the Higher Education Act that reflects and reinforces the current independent student provisions. Currently a student is independent if he or she was in foster care "at any time when the individual was 13 years of age or older." The proposed definition specifically includes individuals who were age 13 or older when placed into the foster care system and who are no longer in that system, "without regard to any such individual’s subsequent adoption, guardianship arrangement, or other form of permanency outcome."

The bill further assigns responsibility for resolving complaints regarding an individual’s independence under the homelessness and foster care/ward of the court/orphan provisions to ED’s Student Loan Ombudsman.

The bill would revise Title IV Program Participation Agreements to address the housing needs of homeless students. Among those proposed changes are provisions that would require the institution to:

  • Designate a single point of contact to assist homeless or foster care students;
  • Post public notice about financial aid and other assistance available to homeless and foster care children and youth, including independent status;
  • Give priority for institutionally owned or operated housing, including facilities that remain open during breaks or year-round, to homeless students, self-supporting unaccompanied students at risk of homelessness, and foster care children and youth;
  • Develop a plan for how these students can access housing resources during and between academic terms, which may include both institutional housing and community resources; and
  • Include optional clearly defined questions about homelessness and foster care in its admissions application.

The bill would require that priority for Federal Work-Study employment be given to students who are currently or formerly homeless or foster care children or youth. In terms of need analysis, certain payment for foster care would be excluded from income.

The bill also would require outreach to these populations by TRIO, Talent Search, Upward Bound and other programs, and in-state tuition rates at public institutions.


Publication Date: 11/13/2015

Mary G | 11/16/2015 3:44:44 PM

I think the verbiage of "unaccompanied youths who are self-supporting and at risk of homelessness" needs to assessed. We have had students where they think parents aren't with them at college = unaccompanied, self-supporting = they are paying for everything, at risk of homelessness = don't know if they'll be able to pay next months rent (bills). Many people fit into that category. Can the verbiage "at risk of homelessness" be clarified to be more specific?

Manuel G | 11/13/2015 11:20:05 AM

Pamela, although it is sad to see students in that situation, your approach kind of misses the point. FAFSA is there to help to pay for educational expenses, not to offer a welfare system for the homeless. If your approach were to be implemented, we would have a wave of homeless people enrolling in school just to get money. That would hurt retention rates, graduation rates, and the default rates for a lot of small schools which are already struggling to keep them up.

Pamela F | 11/13/2015 8:43:11 AM

A better approach would be to allow financial aid to cover periods of non-enrollment for these students, so they are not forced to attend year -round in order to the money to pay for housing. Of course, this aid would be loans under the current system and an increase in the loan maximums and aggregates would also be needed.

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