Congressional leaders announced that the final FY2021 funding legislation to be voted on today will include provisions to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), including many measures to remove financial aid barriers for unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness, and former foster youth.
SHC is thrilled to announce the culmination of a decade of consistent, bipartisan advocacy to help youth experiencing homelessness and from foster care access financial aid. Our young leaders have spoken to Congress and federal agency officials repeatedly over the years about the hardships they have faced simply trying to get the financial aid to which they are entitled – and which they need to build a strong future, free of homelessness.
We are excited that these provisions, including provisions from the bipartisan Higher Education Access and Student for Homeless and Foster Youth Act (“HEASHFY”), are expected to soon be law, and we look forward to working equally hard to ensure that they are implemented robustly so that young people can achieve their dreams.
Provisions for Unaccompanied Homeless Youth
- Eliminates the requirement that unaccompanied homeless youths’ status be redetermined every year, which many unaccompanied homeless youth have found to be intrusive, re-traumatizing, and burdensome. Under the Act, any student who is determined to be an unaccompanied homeless youth for a preceding award year “shall be presumed to be independent for each subsequent year at the same institution” unless “the student informs the institution that circumstances have changed” or “the institution has specific conflicting information about the student’s independence, and has informed the student of this information” (emphasis added). This provision would shift the burden of proof from the student (who, under current law, must prove that circumstances have not changed) to the institution (which must present “specific” information to the student indicating that circumstances have changed).
- Expands the list of officials and programs that may verify that an applicant is an unaccompanied homeless youth (and therefore an independent student), to include:
- school district homeless liaisons;
- the director or a designee of a director of “an emergency or transitional shelter, street outreach program, homeless youth drop-in center, or other program serving individuals who are experiencing homelessness.” (Current law limits such verifications to Runaway and Homeless Youth Act providers and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development homeless providers).
- the director or a designee of a director of a program funded under a TRIO or Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for an Undergraduate program (“GEAR UP”) grant;
- a financial aid administrator at another institution who previously made a determination.
- Requires financial aid administrators (FAAs) to consider and accept as sufficient documentation from one of the authorized entities, unless there is “documented conflicting information.”
- Documentation from one of the authorized entities may include “a documented phone call, written statement, or verifiable electronic data match.”
- Requires FAAs to make a determination of unaccompanied homeless youth status for youth who cannot get determinations from other authorities. That determination must be:
- Based on a written statement from, or a documented interview with, a student that confirms that a student is an unaccompanied homeless youth (or unaccompanied, at risk, and self-supporting)
- Made independent from the reasons that the student is an unaccompanied homeless youth, or is a youth who is unaccompanied, at risk of homelessness, and self-supporting. (In other words, financial aid administrators may not consider why a student is unaccompanied and homeless; whether a financial aid administrator considers the applicant’s reasons for becoming unaccompanied and homeless valid is irrelevant to the required determination of unaccompanied homeless youth status.)
- Determinations of unaccompanied homeless youth status must be made as quickly as practicable, may be made as early as the year before the award year for which the student submits the application, and must not be made later than during the award year for which the student initially submits the application.
Provisions for Former Foster Youth
- If an institution requires documentation that a student was in foster care when the student was age 13 or older, the financial aid administrator must accept as adequate, in the absence of “documented conflicting information” (emphasis added) any of the following:
- A court order or official State documentation that the student received Federal or State support in foster care;
- A documented phone call, written statement, or verifiable electronic data match, which confirms the student was in foster care at an applicable age, from:
- a State, county, or tribal agency administering a program under part B or E of title IV of the Social Security Act;
- a State Medicaid agency: or
- a public or private foster care placing agency or foster care facility or placement.
- A documented phone call or a written statement from an attorney, a guardian ad litem, or a Court Appointed Special Advocate that confirms that the student was in foster care at an applicable age, and documents the person’s relationship to the student.
- Verification of the student’s eligibility for an education and training voucher under the John H. Chafee Foster Care Program under section 477 of the Social Security Act (42 U.S.C. 677).
- Determinations of former foster care status must be made as quickly as practicable, may be made as early as the year before the award year for which the student submits the application, and must not be made later than during the award year for which the student initially submits the application.
- Students determined in a preceding year to be independent based on former foster care status “shall be presumed to be independent for each subsequent year at the same institution” unless “the student informs the institution that circumstances have changed” or “the institution has specific conflicting information about the student’s independence, and has informed the student of this information” (emphasis added).
Other Unusual Circumstances
It is important to note that the new homeless and foster youth provisions are different and distinct from other new provisions that allow adjustments to dependency status for students who are not able to contact a parent, or for whom contact with parents would pose a risk to the student. For homeless and former foster youth, financial aid administrators must make determinations – it is not a matter of professional judgment.
Simplified FAFSA Form
- Requires the Secretary of Education to ensure that the simplified FAFSA has a single question on homeless status.
- The question must be an “easily understood screening question” to identify an applicant who is an unaccompanied homeless youth, or unaccompanied, at risk of homelessness, and self-supporting.
- The question must be “distinct from those relating to an individual who does not have access to parental income due to an unusual circumstance.”
- Requires the Secretary of Education to publish data in a publicly accessible manner annually on the number of individuals who apply for Federal financial aid pursuant who indicated they are an unaccompanied homeless youth or a foster care youth.
- The provisions summarized above are effective as of July 1, 2023, and apply to the 2023-2024 award year and subsequent years. Until then, the current eligibility and rules are in place. (For tools on homeless youth and the FAFSA, see our FAFSA page)