Higher Education

Tips for Helping Homeless Youth Succeed in College

This series aims to help youth experiencing homelessness succeed in college by highlighting nationwide best practices for their support.

This SchoolHouse Connection series is focused on helping youth experiencing homelessness succeed in college. We highlight best practices for supporting these students from institutions across the country.

These are living documents that will be updated regularly to provide new and innovative practices. If you or your institution would like to share the great work you’re doing, please contact Jillian Sitjar, Director of Higher Education Partnerships.

Strategies for Transitioning from High School to College

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Postsecondary education is increasingly necessary for obtaining employment that pays enough to afford housing. It is a critical factor in ending the cycle of homelessness and improving the health, stability, and overall well-being of youth experiencing homelessness. 

The Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA) recognized the importance of postsecondary education for homeless students by amending the McKinney-Vento Act to improve the transition from high school to postsecondary education. Under the Act, local educational agency (LEA) homeless liaisons are required to ensure that unaccompanied homeless youth are informed of their status as independent students for college financial aid and obtain assistance to receive verification for the FAFSA. Additionally, state McKinney-Vento plans must describe how homeless youth will receive assistance from school counselors to improve their readiness for college.

The transition from secondary to postsecondary education can be challenging for any student, but especially for youth who have histories of trauma, mobility, and lack of family support. These challenges have been exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Teachers, counselors, McKinney-Vento liaisons, and service providers can play a key role in supporting the decision to go to college and assisting youth in the transition.

Supporting the Transition from Secondary to Postsecondary

Other Strategies:

Strategies for Identifying Homeless College Students

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Identifying students who are homeless is difficult for many reasons. Students might be unaware of the definition of homelessness and not realize that they are experiencing homelessness. Others may feel ashamed, embarrassed, or afraid of the consequences of disclosing their situation. Yet if youth experiencing homelessness are not identified, they may lose out on potential supports they need to stay in school and graduate.

Being able to identify and track students experiencing homelessness provides institutions with a more accurate understanding of the prevalence of homelessness among the student body and the kinds of supports that these students may need. As a result, institutions will be better able to generate and allocate resources and services for academic retention and life-long success. 

Below are some strategies that colleges and university systems have implemented to identify and provide outreach to students experiencing homelessness. These strategies can be integrated into existing outreach efforts for vulnerable students. 

Current and Pending Laws & Policies

Washington SB 2674 – Institutions of higher education shall include on their applications for admission or on their registration materials a question asking whether the applicant has experienced unaccompanied homelessness or been in foster care, with an explanation that financial and support services may be available. Institutions also shall devise and implement other procedures for efficiently, promptly, and accurately identifying students and applicants who are eligible for services.

Strategies for Housing On and Off Campus

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Chicago found that 3.5 million (1 in 10) young adults between the ages of 18-25 experienced homelessness over a twelve-month period. According to follow-up interviews, 29% of the young adults who experienced homelessness were enrolled in college or another educational program at the time that they experienced homelessness. According to a report published in March 2021 by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, in the 12 months prior to the survey, 14% of survey respondents experienced homelessness. 

Stable housing is a critical support for homeless youth to be successful in their pursuit of higher education, but housing options on college campuses vary between institutions. Some schools may have live-in requirements, while other schools, typically community colleges, provide no housing at all. Federal housing programs provide minimal support due to restrictions for college students and shortages in subsidized housing. Student housing can offer some reprieve; however, it is not necessarily less expensive than off-campus options. Even when student housing is cheaper than off-campus housing, the supply of student housing often does not meet demand. 

Colleges around the country have been addressing these housing needs through their Residential Life and Housing offices and by partnering with community agencies. This tip sheet provides a snapshot of current strategies and considerations for practice and policy.

Other Strategies:

Current and Pending Laws & Policies:

Some states have laws that provide priority housing to youth experiencing homelessness and those who have been in foster care. In addition to priority housing, in some states, higher education homeless liaisons work with students to provide housing over break periods. We describe some of these laws below.

California AB 801 – Each postsecondary educational institution must designate a staff member to serve as the homeless and foster student liaison, responsible for informing students about financial aid and other assistance available to them, such as housing.

California SB 85 – This law aims to reduce homelessness and hunger across all three California public higher education systems. Signed into law in June 2017, the bill allocated $7.5 million in support of Hunger-Free College Campuses. Each system was awarded $2.5 million to expand the fight against student hunger, raise awareness of services currently offered, and develop practices and procedures to provide further assistance to students in need.

California AB 1228 – Requires state university campuses and asks community colleges and University of California campuses to give former foster youth and current/former homeless youth priority access to student housing, especially student housing that is available year-round (at no additional cost). The law also requests that each campus create a housing plan for these student groups to ensure they can access housing all year, even during academic breaks.

California AB 74 – In the 2019-20 State Budget, $19 million was allocated annually to California’s three public post-secondary institutions for Rapid Rehousing programs to assist homeless college students. Campuses must use this funding to establish partnerships with organizations that have expertise in helping people experiencing homelessness and provide wrap-around services and rental subsidies for students.

Strategies for Accessing Financial Aid

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Many college students experience hardships resulting in homelessness, hunger, an inability to afford textbooks, and other challenges that make it difficult for them to graduate. To support their academic success, prospective and current students can apply for need-based and merit-based financial aid each year using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA)

Unfortunately, many students who could benefit from financial aid do not complete the FAFSA. One national study found that about 30% of students failed to file a FAFSA and that one third of those students would have been eligible to receive federal Pell Grants. Most commonly, students did not complete the FAFSA because they thought they had no financial needs, didn’t think they would qualify for aid, didn’t want to take on student debt, or had trouble filling out the forms. Many students also find that the FAFSA is lengthy, confusing, and difficult to complete. A 2016 GAO report found that burdensome program rules can hinder the ability of homeless and foster youth to complete the FAFSA. 

Unaccompanied homeless youth (homeless youth who are not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian) are considered independent for the FAFSA, relieving them of the need to provide their parents’ financial information or signature. However, these students must obtain a determination that they were homeless on their own during the school year in which they are submitting the application. There are designated authorized entities that can provide a determination and if a student cannot obtain verification from those parties, a college financial aid administrator must make this determination for the student. This resource explains the process in more detail.

To continue receiving financial aid―including grants, loans, scholarships, and work-study―students must meet Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) requirements each year. SAP requirements vary from campus to campus. Generally, they include earning a specified minimum GPA, passing a certain percentage of classes attempted, and making timely progress towards degree completion. Students who do not meet their institution’s SAP requirements during their annual evaluation become ineligible for financial aid, unless they successfully appeal and are placed on probation. A report from John Burton Advocates for Youth found that 1 in 4 students lost financial aid due to SAP. For students who depend on financial aid to help cover their college costs and/or living expenses, the sudden loss of income can cause financial challenges and put them at risk of experiencing homelessness. Part two of the report includes key federal and state level policy recommendations to remove unnecessary barriers that prevent minority students, like those experiencing homelessness, from remaining eligible for most state and financial aid. 

Large changes are coming to the 2024-2025 FAFSA from the FAFSA Simplification Act. However, some provisions for homeless and foster youth are already in effect now. To learn more about these changes view this webinar featuring the Department of Education and accompanying FAQ document

There are many strategies schools, community agencies, and colleges can use to help students access and maintain their financial aid. 

Current and Pending Laws & Policies:

Strategies for Creating and Sustaining Campus-Based Programs

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Youth experiencing homelessness face many barriers to completing their postsecondary education, from not meeting basic needs to lacking academic support. In recognition of these barriers, institutions of higher education are beginning to create support programs for homeless students on campus.  These programs vary by institution and may also serve other or overlapping vulnerable student populations, including students from foster care, undocumented students, or other low-income, first-generation students. Some of the most robust campus-based programs are comprised of multi-sector partnerships to help students to thrive in college and beyond. This tip sheet reviews the core components of successful campus-based programs and provides suggestions for creating or improving programs.

Core Components of Campus-Based Programs for Homeless and Other Vulnerable Students

Strategies for Creating or Improving Campus-Based Programs for Homeless and Other Vulnerable Students

Institutions of higher education may already implement one or more of the core components described above. However, these existing services or programs may not be intentional about reaching out to, and meeting the specific needs of youth who are experiencing homelessness. In addition, disparate components may not be coordinated into an accessible, unified program or branded with a recognizable name that effectively advertises available resources and solicits community contributions.  Some states have passed laws requiring colleges to provide support for students experiencing homelessness–but legislation certainly isn’t necessary for institutions to put supports in place. The following strategies can help create services where none exist or build upon existing services.

Examples of Comprehensive Support Programs

Below are some great examples of comprehensive support programs that have partnerships with resources on- and off-campus. The infographics from Kennesaw State University and CSU Long Beach provide “at-a-glance” overviews of their comprehensive programs.

Strategies for Parenting Students

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According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), 22% of undergraduate students–about 3.8 million students–are raising dependent children. Students of color are more likely to be parents; additionally, about 70% of parenting students are women. These students are balancing many competing demands: attending classes, keeping up with schoolwork, and caring for children. College and child care are costly, with the average cost of child care ranging between $8,000-$35,000 each year. As a result, parenting students are more likely to experience food and housing insecurity than students who do not have children. A Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice report found that among parenting students, 70% were experiencing basic needs insecurity and were 15 percentage points more likely to experience housing insecurities compared to their non-parenting peers. 

 A Voices of Youth Count brief from Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago found that pregnant and parenting youth are more likely to experience homelessness than non-parenting youth, and that being a parent is a risk factor for experiencing homelessness: 43% of 18-25 year-old women and 29% of 18-25 year-old men who experienced homelessness reported having at least one child. 

Parenting students, and specifically homeless parenting students, are a reality on college campuses. Higher education provides the surest way out of poverty and homelessness and can help break generational cycles of poverty. Some colleges and universities are beginning to respond to student parents by providing them with resources and services to help alleviate the financial burden of child care and housing and to meet other unique needs. However, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) reported that colleges can do more to help parenting students with child care, including publicizing dependent care allowances to parenting students. While resources and services may vary among institutions, the strategies we enumerate below can be universally effective in assisting homeless parenting college students and their children.

Additional Strategies:

Current Laws & Policies:

Title IX – Title IX prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in education and in programs and activities that receive federal funding. Title IX’s protections extend to parenting and pregnant students. Schools should ensure that they comply with Title IX and that their students, including homeless, parenting students, are made aware of their rights under Title IX. Higher education institutions receiving federal funding are also required to designate a Title IX coordinator who is responsible for ensuring the school complies with Title IX.

Oregon SB 564 – This bill requires the Higher Education Coordinating Commission to design a question or questions allowing students to identify if they are acting as a parent or legal guardian. This information can then be used to collect demographic information by public postsecondary institutions of education. 

Illinois HB 2878 – This bill requires each public institution of higher education to determine the parental status of enrolled students and collect specific information about the parenting student. Starting September 1, 2021, each public institution of higher education that operates a child care center or early learning center on its campus to collect specific information concerning the number of children served. 

California AB 2881 – This bill requires colleges and universities in California to provide priority registration for student parents by July 2023 and to notify them of resources and supports critical to their success by February 2023.