FAFSA and Homeless Youth: Challenges & Recommendations in the COVID-19 Era

Executive Summary

Homelessness among college students is a diverse phenomenon, encompassing different age groups, family compositions, causes, and dynamics. Youth under age 24 who experience homelessness on their own – “unaccompanied homeless youth” – are a distinct subset of college students who face unique challenges in pursuing higher education. Lack of family and other support, often coupled with histories of neglect, abuse, trauma, mobility, and deep poverty, create roadblocks to their path to and through post-secondary education. Youth of color are more likely to experience homelessness than white youth, underscoring inequities across systems. LGBTQ youth also are more likely to experience homelessness, and face additional barriers.

One of the most significant barriers to higher education for youth experiencing homelessness is accessing financial aid; without financial aid, they cannot transition to and complete their college education, and remain at higher risk of continued homelessness as adults. 

This report examines six years of financial aid data for unaccompanied homeless youth (UHY). These data demonstrate continued barriers to financial aid access – barriers that have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 outbreak. Our analysis finds that:

  1. The number of Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) applicants who were determined to be unaccompanied homeless youth increased by 38% over the past six years. Nearly three quarters (73.5%) of this increase occurred between the 2016-2017 and 2018-2019 academic years, after enactment and implementation of amendments to federal K-12 education law to improve homeless youth’s access to financial aid. 
  2. The number of UHY determinations made by local educational agency homeless liaisons and financial aid administrators increased significantly over the past six years (58% and 128% respectively), while the number of determinations made by homeless service providers did not. 
  3. From 2016-2018, the number of unaccompanied homeless youth FAFSA determinations increased for each entity that is authorized to make determinations, except for financial aid administrators, who made fewer determinations.
  4. Determinations made by financial aid administrators continue to comprise a very small portion (7%) of the overall number of UHY FAFSA determinations.
  5. There is great variation among states in six-year trends and two-year trends, with most states showing increases, but some states showing negligible changes or even decreases.

COVID-19 FAFSA Challenges

Although the U.S. Department of Education has not yet released data that would indicate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on FAFSA determinations for unaccompanied homeless youth, general FAFSA data indicates that FAFSA completion is down 4 percent among all high school students, but down by nearly 6 percent among students attending high-poverty high schools.

Through our direct experience supporting young people in our Youth Leadership & Scholarship program, as well as assisting local educational agency homeless liaisons and service providers, we have witnessed additional FAFSA barriers during the pandemic. These additional barriers include new and exacerbated documentation, outreach, and communication challenges. The fact that one in five institutions require students to complete the FAFSA to be eligible for emergency assistance places an additional hurdle before homeless youth at a time of great need.

A concerted effort is needed at every level — in policy and in practice, and supported by philanthropy — to ensure that youth experiencing homelessness receive financial aid and are able to complete postsecondary education, obtain living wage employment, and avoid homelessness for themselves and their children in the future.

Policy, Practice, and Philanthropy Recommendations to Remove Barriers to Financial Aid for Unaccompanied Homeless Youth

To remove barriers to financial aid for unaccompanied homeless youth, particularly during COVID-19, we recommend policy changes at the federal and state level, as well as improved practices for K-12 schools, institutions of higher education, and homeless service providers, including: