“Working Harder Just to Be Seen and Heard:” Barriers to Financial Aid for Homeless and Foster Youth

The report examines a critical component of the basic needs of unaccompanied homeless youth in higher education: financial aid. Without financial aid, postsecondary education–their best hope for lasting housing stability–is simply out of reach.

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Approximately 4.2 million youth and young adults experience homelessness on their own every year. These young people — referred to as “unaccompanied homeless youth” under federal education law — face unique barriers to accessing and completing higher education. Another more than 407,000 children and youth are in the foster care system.

For both populations, lack of family and support, coupled with histories of neglect, abuse, trauma, mobility, and deep poverty, create roadblocks to their path to and through postsecondary education. Yet some form of education beyond high school remains their best opportunity for long-term stability, economic independence, health, and well-being.

Unaccompanied homeless youth are not living with, or supported by, a parent or guardian, and cannot obtain parental income information. Therefore, under the Higher Education Act, they are considered independent students and do not need to provide a parent’s signature or information about parental income on the FAFSA. Youth with experience in foster care on or after their 13th birthday also are considered independent students.

Despite this policy, these youth face barriers to higher education, including burdensome financial aid program rules that have made it more difficult for these youth to obtain federal financial assistance for college. These barriers were exacerbated by the pandemic, which brought disruption, isolation, and more economic hardship and trauma.

This report examines recently released 2020-2021 federal data that help illustrate the impact of the pandemic on FAFSA completion for youth experiencing homelessness and youth with experience in foster care.

Our Findings:

1. In the 2020-2021 academic year, the number of unaccompanied homeless youth (UHY) FAFSA determinations declined by almost 10% from the prior year (2019-2020). This decrease is nearly ten times greater than the percentage drop in the total number of FAFSA applications submitted in 2020-21, and the first decline in UHY determinations in five years of data collection.

2. The number of youth who requested FAFSA homeless determinations but did not receive them by the end of the application cycle increased by 23% from the prior year (2019-2020), and by 34% from 2018-2019.  The increases in “undetermined requests for homelessness consideration” represent increases in the number of students whose homeless status remains unknown because a determination was not made in response to their requests for schools to consider their homelessness.

3. The number of FAFSA applicants who were determined to be independent because both parents were deceased, or the applicants were in foster care or dependents or wards of the court decreased by 7% from the prior year (2019-2020) — a significantly larger drop than the 1% decrease in the total number of FAFSA applications submitted in 2020-21. This continues a downward trend from previous years.

Our Recommendations: 

1. The U.S. Department of Education (ED) should act quickly to ensure robust and expeditious implementation of the homeless and foster youth provisions in the recently enacted FAFSA Simplification Act. The FAFSA Simplification Act (Public Law No: 116-260) removes many FAFSA barriers for youth experiencing homelessness and youth who have come from foster care. Congress recognized the urgency of these reforms by specifically authorizing ED to implement the homeless and foster provisions in the 2023-2024 award year. However, ED has not yet made these critical changes. ED should revise the online FAFSA for 2023-2024 immediately to ensure that it does not conflict with the new law. In addition, ED should issue strong guidance to financial aid administrators to help them comply with all of the new policies.

2. Congress should enact the Higher Education for Homeless and Foster Youth Act (HEASHFY) and the Fostering Success in Higher Education Act (FSHE). HEASHFY removes barriers to financial aid and postsecondary success by requiring institutions to post information on eligibility and processes for receiving FAFSA determinations on their websites, and by requiring the designation of higher education liaisons to connect youth to financial aid. FSHE removes barriers by appropriating funding for statewide initiatives to assist homeless and foster youth to transition to and succeed in higher education.

3. States should adopt policies to ensure FAFSA completion, including FAFSA completion laws and the designation of higher education homeless and foster liaisons. An increasing number of states are enacting state legislation to increase access to financial aid and provide additional support to youth experiencing homelessness and youth coming from foster care. These important measures can supplement federal efforts and provide direct assistance.

4. State and local education agencies, institutions of higher education, community service providers, and child welfare agencies should inform youth of their status for financial aid and help them obtain documentation, including through creative means such as awareness campaigns like FAFSA Challenges, or direct assistance through FAFSA Mentors.