Should Homeless College Students Be Part of the Higher Education Act?

Posted By Eliana Osborn on December 2, 2015 at 3:40 pm
Should Homeless College Students Be Part of the Higher Education Act?

An estimated 300 students at San Diego City College are living on the street.  That doesn’t include the many students who are close to the edge, using food pantries and scraping together pennies.

This isn’t just a problem at schools with lovely climates like San Diego though.  Senator Patty Murray of Washington recently reintroduced legislation to change financial aid reporting documentation.  Currently, a student must prove that they are homeless each year.  Since 2007, it has been easier for an independent student to apply for aid without needing parent information.  But a federally-funded shelter or counselor must still verify you as homeless (or at risk).

Legislative changes for homeless college students have hope once again as the entire Higher Education Act is being renewed.  The current requirements are already challenging if a student is on his own, without parent contact—that some information simply is impossible to come by. Nevertheless, obstacles still remain, as shows a Department of Education memo in the summer of 2015, which notes that some colleges and universities are making students explain why they are homeless before signing off on the designation.

Another significant challenge for homeless youth is what to do during college breaks when on-campus housing is often closed.  NAEHCY, the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth tracks the number of homeless students at all levels in the US, as well as policy issues affecting such populations.  One of their initiatives is specifically geared toward holiday logistics.  Different campuses with effective programs are listed on the NAEHCY website, along with contact information for students who may be in a housing crisis.

Ten states already have transitional programs in place to help homeless students get from high school to college.  This time period is tenuous for most young people and is, especially, a time for additional support for the most vulnerable population of students without a permanent home or parental resources.

More than 56,000 students identified themselves as homeless on their FAFSA last year, though experts believe the number is significantly higher given the difficulty of filling out the form if you are, in fact, homeless.  These are individuals trying to improve their situation and prospects for the future.  Without federal aid, getting more education is an impossibility, and access to federal student aid is crucial to homeless students, not just for tuition but for basic living expenses as well.

The goal of federal financial aid for college is to help lift those most in need, a category that no one fits better than a homeless young person. Though, how Congress will factor the unique needs of homeless college students into the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act still remains to be determined.

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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