Homeless Students Need Educational Supports Beyond Financial Aid, Experts Respond to GAO Report

Posted By Eliana Osborn on June 20, 2016 at 9:03 am
Homeless Students Need Educational Supports Beyond Financial Aid, Experts Respond to GAO Report

For foster youth, coming of age often means lacking a permanent home and having minimal resources—financial and otherwise—for the next stage of their lives. They and other homeless young people are the subject of a new report out from the Government Accountability Office. Much federal policy about homeless youth has focused on elementary and secondary education. Now the GAO is recommending work from colleges as well as government to make it possible for more students to get into school and off the streets.

The statistics on youth homelessness are disheartening. The National Runaway Switchboard estimates 1.3 million teens are sleeping on the street each night. Data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures states that numbers are rising, that most homeless youth are female, and that a large number are pregnant. And 75% of homeless or runaway youth have already dropped out of high school or soon will.

“Homeless youth often lack the parental support that many of their peers receive when applying to college. Simple things like completing and paying for admissions applications, college access testing, and applying for financial aid can become huge hurdles for these students. They also may not have assistance with funding for books, transportation, bedding, school ID’s and other things that students with parents would have access to,” explains Cyekeia Lee, director of higher education initiatives for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY).

Homeless youth face similar challenges in navigating the college process as students who are first in their family to attend college. Many campuses have put together effective programs to support first generation kids which can be a guide for homeless youth as well.

Proving homeless status each year

Another challenge for homeless youth is a logistical one says Lee. “Once enrolled and attending college, many homeless youths continue to struggle with proving and documenting their homeless status to higher education professionals. The supports that homeless students receive during K-12 education are not always readily available at colleges and universities, so it can make for a hard transition for homeless students.” Recent FAFSA changes, allowing prior-prior year information, are a simple way to ease the path to school. Though documentation still requires a lot of paperwork and legwork, making it easy to fall through the cracks.

The GAO report, Actions Needed to Improve Access to Federal Financial Assistance for Homeless and Foster Youth, suggests a variety of strategies to make higher education more accessible. Some are simple, like having schools build webpages collecting links to all the necessary information a homeless student might need.

Others will require legal changes. Right now, status reports on finances and living situation are needed every year to continue receiving Pell grants. That could be altered with guidance from the federal Department of Education so that students identified as homeless would not have to go through the onerous proof process as frequently.

Schools working to address barriers for homeless college students

The NAEHCY has worked with 17 states so far to improve access to higher education for homeless youth. Lee notes that by the end of this year, three more states will be on board. “Colorado has been the leader in these efforts as the first state to take on addressing barriers homeless college students experience. More than 400 college campuses nationwide have been designated a Single Point of Contact to support homeless students on campus. Kennesaw State University in Georgia, University of Massachusetts Boston, and West Chester University in Pennsylvania have some of the most comprehensive support programs, and community colleges like Ann Arundel in Maryland and Aims Community College in Colorado have also established great supports to help homeless students as well.”

Efforts like free community college, increasing Pell grant amounts, and even emergency financial aid, are beneficial for all students. However, homeless youth will need more than money to be successful in college; the social resources many of us take for granted will have to come from non-family sources. Lee aptly states, “I wish that people knew that these are some of the brightest and most resilient students out there. They just need adequate supports to reach their full potential, which is what every student deserves.”

Spreading campus awareness, supporting homeless students

Kennesaw State has been working with homeless students proactively for nearly a decade. Their CARE Center serves youth who have been in the foster care system and those dealing with hunger, in addition to current or at-risk of homelessness. Campus Awareness, Resource, and Empowerment (CARE) was formally organized in 2013, but campus efforts to educate about housing issues were already a tradition. Students can participate in a sleep-out event to get a glimpse of the stress just one night without stable shelter entails.

Short term housing situations can lead to college trouble if they aren’t addressed, so CARE can intervene with crisis management help. Marcy Stidum, director of CARE, gives one example of how the Center kept one young man in school. “We had a male student who was a KSU senior who transferred from Middle Georgia College to finish his degree. When his residence plans fell through, he found himself struggling with homelessness at the start of the semester. The CARE Center helped him find a room at the Cobb Street Ministry, where he stayed for three weeks. Due to their strict curfew, he missed his afternoon classes. However, his professors were very flexible and allowed him to work from home.” This student graduated in December 2015, having received financial help getting a room and meal plan on campus.

One step colleges can easily take is to designate a Single Point of Contact (SPOC). The National Clearinghouse on Families and Youth says this person can help homeless students navigate the forms and processes at college. Just having help knowing what resources are available can make the difference between a student getting help early or dropping out when problems arise.

Stidum says a campus-wide ‘Culture of Caring’ laid the foundation for the center; a genuine goal of all involved parties to help students achieve life success, not just academics. “The CARE Center developed over time to a mission and social justice model of providing a comprehensive response to eradicate the struggle of homelessness, food insecurity and/or any negative impact from being in foster care for any college student, by fostering emotional well-being, access to nutrition and financial sustainability and thereby improving their ability to obtain academic success,” she explains.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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