On October 1, 2017, the U.S. Department of Education made the 2018-2019 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) available.  Here are five things you need to know about youth experiencing homelessness and the new FAFSA.

1. There is no longer a definition of “youth” on the FAFSA.  Previous versions of the FAFSA had defined “youth” for purposes of determining who is an unaccompanied homeless youth as someone age 21 and under. This definition created barriers for unaccompanied homeless youth who were 22 or 23 years old, who were often forced to submit extensive and burdensome documentation to prove their homeless status until they were no longer considered “dependent” at age 24. As a result of many years of advocacy, the 2018-2019 FAFSA removes the definition of “youth.” This change will allow for a more streamlined process for students, as well as for financial aid administrators.

2. School district homeless liaisons have new specific FAFSA responsibilities.  As a result of amendments made to the McKinney-Vento Act by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), school district homeless liaisons are now required to inform unaccompanied homeless youth of their status as independent students for college financial aid, and help them to obtain assistance to receive verification for the FAFSA. Liaisons should inform unaccompanied youth of their eligibility as independent students as soon as possible – both to ensure that they set their sights on college, and also that they apply for financial aid well ahead of all deadlines.

3. School counselors have new specific responsibilities related to higher education and homelessness. ESSA amended the McKinney-Vento Act so that school counselors are now required to advise, prepare, and improve the readiness of all youth experiencing homeless for college. This requirement makes it all the more important for school counselors to receive training on homelessness, the McKinney-Vento Act, and the new FAFSA policies.

4. School district liaisons, RHYA program directors or designees, and HUD homeless assistance program directors or designees now are permitted to continue to make FAFSA determinations in subsequent years, under certain conditions. The U.S. Department of Education guidance states that liaisons may continue to make a determination of a youth’s status as either unaccompanied and homeless, or as self-supporting and at risk of being homeless, for as long as the liaison has access to the information necessary to make such a determination for a particular youth. Local liaisons may write subsequent year letters of verification for unaccompanied homeless youth through age 23 if they have the necessary information to write such letter. If a liaison doesn’t have the information that is necessary to make the determination, either because the youth became homeless after high school, or because the liaison is no longer familiar with the youth’s circumstances, the financial aid administrator must make the determination. Directors or designees of Runaway and Homeless Youth Act (RHYA) programs and directors or designees of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Homeless Assistance programs also are authorized under the Higher Education Act to make determinations for the FAFSA. According to ED guidance, “in rare cases where a recognized authority provides documentation of unaccompanied homeless youth status to a person no longer receiving services from the authority’s organization, that documentation is acceptable for verifying unaccompanied homelessness.”

5. SchoolHouse Connection has an updated FAFSA tool to help! We’ve updated our sample form letter to determine the independent student status of unaccompanied homeless youth for the 2018-2019 FAFSA (downloadable as a Microsoft Word document). This letter may be edited as appropriate for your school district, institution of higher education, shelter, transitional living program, or street outreach program.

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