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 fill out this form or contact Jillian Sitjar.
Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and Youth Homelessness. This page provides comprehensive FAFSA-related resources to help youth, K-12 educators, homeless service providers, and higher education professionals understand, prepare, and fill out the FAFSA.
Tips for Homeless Higher Education Liaisons. Institutions of higher education are designating liaisons for homeless students to support them by connecting them to available resources and removing barriers to their college retention and success. This tip sheet provides basic strategies for homeless higher education liaisons.
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
K-12 Educators and McKinney-Vento Liaisons:
- Reach out to McKinney-Vento eligible students as early as freshman year to schedule meetings to discuss postsecondary options (e.g. four-year institutions, community colleges, technical colleges, etc.). Continue meeting with these students throughout the year to answer questions, serve as a resource, and remind them of deadlines. Create a checklist to review each time you meet to keep them on track. Encourage McKinney-Vento students to read the U.S. Department of Education’s guide, “I Want to go to College: Now What?”
- Participate in the John Burton Advocates for Youth training course focused specifically on the transition from high school to college.
- If students are interested in postsecondary education, make sure they take the ACT/SAT exams. Most low-income and homeless students will qualify for fee waivers (ACT & SAT).
- Encourage all students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Even if students aren’t committed to postsecondary plans, it is important for them to fill out the FAFSA so they can receive financial aid if they do decide to attend higher education. There are a variety of scholarship opportunities for students, including our Youth Leadership & Scholarship Program. See more information about the FAFSA on our Financial Aid Tip Sheet or Financial Aid webpage.
- Host a college tour. A college tour is a great way to experience college life first-hand and imagine oneself there. If a college tour isn’t feasible, host a panel of current homeless college students or alumni to talk about their experiences and answer questions. Read how one liaison hosted a “McKinney-Vento Opportunity Tour” and get ideas for how you might replicate her success.
- Be aware of state laws that offer in-state tuition, tuition, and fee waivers like Florida, California, and Maryland. For a full list of states, see our State Policy Resource.
- Partner with college access programs and other higher education supports like the Dean of Students Office or TRIO Support Services. See our Pathways to Partnership: Higher Education guide for ideas.
- Create FAFSA Mentors or Graduation Coaches that help students experiencing homelessness stay on track with graduation, fill out the FAFSA, and create a plan after graduation.
- Educate school staff (teachers, counselors, social workers, and graduation coaches) on the services and opportunities available to McKinney-Vento students by hosting annual trainings. Read the National Center for Homeless Education’s brief on School Counselor Supports for College Preparation and Readiness for Students experiencing Homelessness.
Homeless Service Providers:
- Offer opportunities within the shelter to learn more about postsecondary options. Emphasize the importance of finishing high school and pursuing a postsecondary degree.
- Advertise when local college fairs are in the area.
- Support youth in completing college applications and FAFSA forms and provide documents to assist unaccompanied homeless youth with independent student determinations. See more on our Financial Aid Tip Sheet or Financial Aid webpage.
- Familiarize yourself with higher education timelines and deadlines. Start introducing offices and support programs early on from the Pathways to Partnership: Higher Education guide.
- Seek out local opportunities that help college-bound students prepare for college, like the DC Office of the State Superintendent of Education’s college starter kits that provide essential items (laptop, luggage, school supplies, hygiene items, etc.) to high school graduates.
- Share resources tailored for youth, like those listed on SchoolHouse Connection’s Youth Connection page.
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.
- Include a question about homelessness on college applications so that students can self-identify voluntarily. The California Community College and California State University systems use their Common App, CCCApply and CalState Apply respectively, to allow students to self-disclose homelessness. With this information, schools can inform students of available resources, services, and supports. At Skyline College in San Bruno, California, the homeless higher education liaison and financial aid administrator send an introductory email offering support to all students who disclose that they are homeless. Additionally, in 2019 the Georgia Common App provided an opportunity for students to voluntarily disclose whether they have received benefits or services through McKinney-Vento homeless liaisons or foster care.
- Some institutions like The University of Illinois-Chicago, created a pre-matriculation survey that asks students to voluntarily self-disclose potential obstacles they might face the following year. Examples include food and housing insecurity, having dependents, or being in the foster care system. The institution will then connect the student with appropriate resources and services.
- Partner with financial aid to identify students who identify as independent. While it is important to be mindful of and comply with privacy and HEA laws, higher education personnel can work with the financial aid office to obtain aggregate data of students who indicated homelessness on the FAFSA, and send them information on support programs or resources, like at Indiana University Purdue University Indianapolis.
- Reach out to students under the age of 24 who have claimed dependents on their FAFSA; they are at greater risk of experiencing homelessness. For more strategies on identifying and supporting parenting students, see our Parenting Students Tip Sheet.
- Designate a staff person to serve as the higher education homeless liaison to identify students and provide support services and include their contact information on the institution’s website. Some state laws require higher education liaisons, while other states promote higher education liaisons as a best practice. Consider creating “mini-liaison” positions in key offices like at the University of South Florida. The University of Georgia system lists out all the campus homeless and foster youth support contacts here. For more information, see our tips for homeless higher education liaisons here.
- Collaborate with admissions personnel to find students who have written about their homeless experience in college essays. If eligible, they might qualify for specific programs and scholarships like our Youth Leadership and Scholarship Program.
- Create clear referral systems like at George Washington University, where students, faculty, and staff can express concern for a student. Empower students themselves to come forward through a self-referral system that does not stigmatize homelessness.
- Host trainings and workshops about potential signs of homelessness to librarians, campus police, and other faculty/staff members. Provide training for higher education personnel who are the most likely to have direct contact with students experiencing homelessness, such as counselors, case managers, foster youth liaisons, and veteran services. North Carolina State University has a Pack Essentials Ally Knowledge program where students, faculty, and staff can gain a better understanding about these students and be “certified.”
- Train deans, advisors, and faculty to spot the potential warning signs of student homelessness in the classroom.
- Train Resident Assistants and Residential Living/Housing offices so they can support students experiencing homelessness and refer students to the appropriate contact or program.
- Develop relationships with school district McKinney-Vento liaisons and local homeless youth service providers to identify students who are homeless or have histories of homelessness as they transition to higher education.
- Partner with medical practitioners such as doctors and nurses to ask questions about food insecurity, which often can lead to identifying students experiencing homelessness. Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, California specifically reached out to students who reported fainting and having low blood sugar levels and learned that many were homeless.
- Throughout students’ college exploration process, market resources that are available to students experiencing homelessness or who struggle with meeting basic needs. These marketing “touchpoints” can include the college or university website, application and admissions materials, college tours, and orientation programming.
- Host tabling sessions around campus to share services and resources available for students experiencing homelessness. Alter the days, times, and locations to reach out to a wide net of students.
- Utilize the Student Information System (SIS) like Blackboard or Banner to include information about food or housing resources.
- Encourage faculty members to include a note on their syllabus directing students to the appropriate contact if they are experiencing food and housing challenges. Faculty members can also supplement their syllabus notes to include technology-related resources that schools can provide for free, such as on-campus wireless internet, software, clickers, laptops, and tablets for rent.
- Host programs during breaks where students might still be on campus. Leverage Resident Assistants, alumni, and other personnel and allies to provide/donate meals and build community.
- Raise awareness and conduct intentional outreach initiatives, such as SNAP or FAFSA application assistance, during homelessness and hunger awareness week.
- Utilize Peer Navigators like at Jovenes Inc. to provide outreach and reach out to their peers.
- Create safe, open, and comfortable spaces where students feel welcome and can easily access tools and resources. For example, the University of Washington’s Doorway Project offers a pilot community cafe hub where the campus community and service providers collaborate together to serve Seattle’s homeless youth population.
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.
Proposed legislation: Higher Education Access and Success For Foster and Homeless Youth Act (HEASHFY) – This bipartisan federal bill requires institutions of higher education to designate higher education liaisons to help homeless and foster students access services on- and off-campus.
Youth homelessness is a widespread problem, including on college campuses. A national survey from Chapin Hall at the University of 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.
Housing During Academic Breaks:
Many schools close for weeks at a time during academic breaks, which commonly occur at fall break, winter, spring break, and summer. During these breaks, students for whom returning “home” is not an option lose access to residence halls, academic buildings, dining halls, and more. The stress of seeking a place to stay and the dangers of homelessness during breaks are serious impediments to academic success.
Strategies to provide housing during academic breaks include:
- Provide access to year-round housing on campus for students in need. West Chester University’s Promise Program supports students with access to year-round housing on campus as well as food and supplies from the Resource Pantry.
- Plan ahead for particularly vulnerable students. Students whose families are homeless, are homeless and on their own, or are from foster care, are particularly vulnerable to these housing problems. Schools can be proactive and identify these students by partnering with Admissions, Financial Aid, EOP, EOPS, Disabled Youth Services, Foster Youth Programs, and programs for undocumented or migrant family students to work with students in advance to develop a plan for housing during these break closures. For example, the California State University and California Community College systems include a question in their application where students can self-identify that they are homeless. From this information, schools can provide outreach to students in advance, connect them to resources, and also find programs for which they may be eligible.
- Keep residence halls open during breaks. Rowan University adopted this strategy and includes the weekly usage fee in their room and board cost. While other campuses may charge a fee for individual students who want to stay during breaks, this fee might be paid by a department or office if a student is employed and needs to be on campus during this time.
- Partner with hotels and consider buying out a few rooms for students. Georgetown University has a hotel on campus and provides housing for students in need over winter break. Learn about how several colleges have transformed hotels to residence halls.
- Utilize the campus community and request that local faculty, staff, and alumni host students. Sacramento State’s Host a Hornet matches interested alumni with students for dinner a few times a month. Neighborhood churches have also opened their homes to students who are homeless or hungry.
- Because most dining halls close during breaks, ensure students have food over breaks by donating food, providing food in common area kitchens, or coordinating faculty, staff, and alumni to provide meals. Another example is to use meal sharing like at CSU, Long Beach’s Feed A Need program.
- During the summer, help homeless students maintain their housing by providing on-campus jobs that pay for their summer housing. A few institutions allow students to stay in their rooms all year if they are part of a specific program like the Guardian Scholars Program at San Diego State University.
- Be open to creative solutions, like partnering with an assisted living home. For example, in Winona Health’s intergenerational Students in Residence Program, students pay a low monthly rent and have access to the facilities and meals at the assisted living home. In return, the students volunteer to assist the residents.
- Community colleges can partner with four-year institutions that have residence halls like the Massachusetts Student Housing Security Pilot. The four-year institution offers up to five beds for students at the community college who are experiencing homelessness or housing insecurity.
Emergencies can cause homelessness and prevent students from staying in school. Emergencies might include facilities problems, family problems, medical issues, conduct concerns, and roommate conflicts.
- Establish an emergency housing program. College’s Residential Living and Housing can keep a few rooms and spaces available as temporary housing for individuals facing emergency housing problems, as well as students experiencing homelessness. Sacramento State has a robust emergency housing program that provides short-term housing assistance to students for up to 30 days in the residence halls. This time period allows students and the crisis manager to plan and arrange for long-term housing. Students may also receive a meal plan that provides two meals a day. Learn more about their program by watching this archived webinar.
- Offer emergency aid through grants or loans to help students pay utility bills, rent, or motel rooms as temporary shelter during academic breaks. For more information about emergency aid, see here.
Partnerships with community agencies are an important way to build housing options for homeless students.
- Seek out community nonprofits and shelters that have expertise in serving youth and young adults experiencing homelessness. For example, Jovenes College Success Initiative uses a college focused rapid-rehousing model that provides a rental subsidy and case management to youth who are homeless and attend local community colleges.
- Partner with volunteers in the community who open their homes to students. Depaul University’s partnership with the Dax Program matches volunteers for a host-home option where students can stay for a 12 week period. Since the host-home program began, they have expanded to provide housing to current Depaul students by paying a small fee.
- Create College Housing Plans to successfully place students in housing environments that support higher education. Read how Dorm Room Dreamz did this to address college homelessness in Louisiana.
- Consider cooperative living like at the Southern Scholarship Foundation in Florida, where students with similar backgrounds live together to cook, clean, and manage a household budget while housing is provided for free.
- Replicate Massachusetts Moving to College pilot program designed to support unaccompanied homeless youth as they transition to and through a college education. These scholarships are funded through HUD’s Moving to Work program. The program offers year-round, on-campus housing, meal plans, case management support, and other support services.
- Create a multi-disciplinary homeless task force on campus to help facilitate referrals between staff on campus and streamline service coordination. Task forces can include a wide variety of staff who assist students experiencing homelessness (e.g. Financial Aid, EOPS, Health Services, Admissions, Social Work, Academic Counseling, Disabled Student Services). The Economic Crisis Response Team at San Diego State University offers short and long-term aid quickly and without stigmatization.
- Create and disseminate a list of local resources, including campus, nonprofit, and government resources like at Ventura Community College. Include this list in marketing materials for incoming and current students experiencing homelessness, food insecurity, and/or financial challenges.
- Create a space for students experiencing homelessness to live and build community together, like the ASCEND Living Learning Community (LLC) at Kennesaw State University.
- Students at California’s Long Beach Community College can sleep in their vehicles at a secure on-campus parking structure overnight. Students will have access to restrooms and Wi-Fi throughout the night and can use showers on campus.
- Tap into local alumni and consider host home options. The University of Utah is offering local alumni $5,000 per semester to board students.
- Incentivize students to live off-campus in privately owned housing to increase on-campus housing capacity for students in need. The University of Cincinnati is offering a $2,500 incentive and free on-campus parking for students.
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.
Louisiana HB 906 – Each public postsecondary education institution in the state must designate a homeless and foster student liaison within its financial aid office. The liaisons are responsible for applying federal financial aid rules related to youth experiencing homelessness (or who have experienced homelessness at any time over the six years prior to enrollment) and youth who were in foster care for at least six months between ages 16 and 18.
Nevada AB 461 (2019) – This legislation creates a Liaison for Post-Secondary Education for Homeless Pupils in the Nevada System of Higher Education. The Liaison will establish a plan for housing students experiencing homelessness when campus housing is not available.
Tennessee HB 1000 / SB 763 – Each post-secondary institution in the state that offers housing resources must develop a plan to provide students experiencing homelessness access to housing resources during and between academic terms. The plan must include granting students experiencing homelessness first priority in housing placement and placing those students in housing that remains open the most days of the year.
Proposed legislation: Higher Education Access and Success For Foster and Homeless Youth Act (HEASHFY) – This bipartisan federal bill requires institutions of higher education to develop a housing plan for homeless and foster students to access campus housing resources during and between academic terms.
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.
Outreach & Identification:
Partner with offices to help identify students who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless and provide resources. To do this, some school financial aid offices send a list of independent students to specific offices who then reach out to each student to explain available and relevant resources and services. For a complete list of outreach and identification strategies, see our Identification Tip Sheet.
Completing the FAFSA can be confusing and complicated. Yet schools and community agencies can provide FAFSA support in many ways.
- Understand how to determine that a student is experiencing homelessness or is at risk of experiencing homelessness for financial aid purposes. Utilize this sample form letter for students to complete.
- Consider creating FAFSA mentors that help students fill out the FAFSA and develop a plan after graduation like at Frederick County, Maryland. Read the position description here.
- Financial aid administrators should follow the Application and Verification Guide when conducting interviews to evaluate a student’s unaccompanied, at-risk, and/or homelessness status rather than focusing on the reasons for the applicant’s homelessness.
- The coronavirus pandemic has made obtaining documentation even more challenging for unaccompanied homeless youth; financial aid administrators can get tips for helping students during the pandemic from this joint NASFAA-SHC tip sheet.
- Offer one-on-one assistance to students completing the FAFSA by hosting office hours in the financial aid office. Case managers and counselors can be present to help reduce stress and provide additional support.
- Create FAFSA Mentors (see archived webinar here) or Graduation Coaches that help students experiencing homelessness stay on track with graduation, fill out the FAFSA, and create a plan after graduation.
- Create a volunteer base that allows college seniors, alumni, and/or others in the community who have completed the FAFSA to support incoming and current college students with their FAFSA completion. For example, Indiana hosts College Goal Sunday every year with financial aid experts to help students and families complete the FAFSA.
- Consider hosting a FAFSA drive-thru event like how Get2GetCollege partners with local community colleges. Students and families can fill out the FAFSA from the comfort of their cars.
- Find out if there are local FAFSA completion events near your community through NCAN’s “Form Your Future” (scroll to the bottom of the page and enter your state). If there are events in or near your community, let homeless and foster youth know and help them to attend.
- Use signage, tabling, articles in the campus newspaper, social media, emails, and/or texts to address common FAFSA myths and remind students about filing deadlines.
- Work with students to maintain Satisfactory Academic Progress. Consider recommendations from this report like providing intrusive academic success coaching to students or create appeal protocols that make it easier for students to file appeals. Develop clear, consistent, accessible appeals processes like those at The University of Wisconsin-Madison to ensure that students can access financial supports and meet their basic needs. Watch this webinar recording by John Burton Advocates for Youth’s Community of Practice to learn more about strategies to streamline SAP, or share SwiftStudent, a site that helps students understand the financial aid appeal process with fillable templates.
- Provide safe and secure access to computers for students to fill out the FAFSA.
- Student parents can use federal financial aid, including loans, to help pay for child care by asking their college to provide a “dependent care allowance,” like at the University of California Merced. Institutions should proactively inform eligible students about this allowance.
- Read the accompanying FAQ document from a webinar with SchoolHouse Connection and National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.
- Share youth-focused financial aid resources, such as those on SchoolHouse Connection’s FAFSA page.
- Stay up-to-date with the new FAFSA changes from the FAFSA Simplification Act and the impact for homeless and foster youth. Attend professional development sessions from organizations like NASFAA or NCAN.
- Watch this webinar featuring the Department of Education and accompanying FAQ document.
- Hold professional development training sessions within the financial aid office to discuss homeless and foster youth.
- Watch this short video featuring a financial aid administrator.
- Practice role playing documented unaccompanied homeless youth determination interviews like in this video.
- Partner with homeless higher education liaisons or other support staff to build stronger connections and referral processes.
Current and Pending Laws & Policies:
The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 – This legislation made important amendments to the McKinney-Vento Act’s Education for Homeless Children and Youths Program to help youth experiencing homelessness transition successfully from high school to postsecondary education. School district homeless liaisons are now 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.
The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 – This legislation includes significant new financial aid policies, including revisions to the Free Application for Student Financial Aid (FAFSA) for unaccompanied youth experiencing homelessness and former foster youth. The changes reflect many years of SchoolHouse Connection’s advocacy; they will remove many barriers to financial aid faced by young people and improve their ability to access and complete higher education. This document summarizes the provisions related to homelessness and foster care and includes links to helpful resources.
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
- One-On-One Case Management Advising: Some programs provide case managers to assess individual needs and provide tailored assistance. Case managers work with students to develop an individualized plan of action and provide appropriate resources and referrals for basic needs and academic supports. For example, case managers can work with students to locate and secure long-term housing solutions and provide follow-up support post crisis to ensure students are stable.
- Emergency Housing: Some campus-based programs offer temporary and/or emergency housing. Whether through Residential Life and Housing or through local shelters, motels, and hotels, students benefit from the stopgap of temporary housing while working to find a more permanent solution with help from case managers, liaisons, and other support staff. For more information on Emergency Housing, see our Tip Sheet.
- Food Pantry/Basic Needs: Food pantries address food insecurity on many college campuses and typically run on donations from the campus community or outside organizations. While most products may be non-perishable, offer fresh fruits and vegetables and other vegetarian/vegan/dietary options. Some institutions like MassBay Community College even offer food scholarships . Other schools have expanded their food bank and pantry offerings by becoming more broad as a basic needs office which includes toiletries, feminine hygiene products, child care supplies, and school supplies.
- Emergency Aid: Some institutions offer emergency aid programs that provide short-term financial assistance to students who are in crisis. These programs may have specific eligibility requirements, such as a specified minimum GPA, consideration of an existing financial aid package, and attained credits. Schools often place limitations on how and how often emergency grants can be spent and the amount that can be requested. The Stay Mason Fund at George Mason University allows students to use emergency funds for tuition, housing, rent, medical bills, and more. All CUNY schools have access to The Carroll and Milton Petrie Student Emergency Grant Fund, which provides quick response grants to students in crisis. To learn more about emergency aid programs, see our resource on How Emergency Aid Can Prevent Homelessness Among College Students.
- Academic Advising: Students experiencing homelessness or from foster care often have limited academic preparation and can experience difficulty completing specific courses to graduate on time. Academic advisors can help students navigate this system and offer career advice. If a student is struggling, advisors can connect students with tutoring programs, facilitate meetings with professors during office hours, or advise schedule changes as necessary.
- Financial Aid Assistance: Most students experiencing homelessness or from foster care rely on financial aid to attend college. It is critical for them to secure their financial aid package on time every year. The most successful campus support programs have strong partnerships with the financial aid office to remind students of deadlines, work with them individually to fill out the FAFSA, and if applicable, help them receive independent student status as an unaccompanied homeless youth, foster youth, or other category of independent student. For more information on financial aid support, see our Tip Sheet.
- Mental Health Services: From the pandemic, there has been an increase in mental health services. Ensure students experiencing homelessness have access to mental health services on-campus. The University of Florida has a wide array of mental health services available which can be in-person or through Zoom.
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.
1. Designate a Higher Education Homeless Liaison
Higher education liaisons often act as a catalyst for the creation or expansion of campus-based programs. A higher education liaison for homeless students, sometimes called a “Single Point of Contact,” is a person tasked with identifying resources available to students experiencing homelessness, informing students about these resources, and helping with application processes. A higher education liaison also can serve as a direct handoff with K-12 McKinney-Vento homeless liaisons. Designating an individual to focus on homeless students, and sometimes students from foster care, is considered a best practice that has been implemented at many institutions. Related best practices include:
- Provide training for a designated liaison to learn about homelessness and associated trauma and to get ideas for supporting students from other higher education liaisons across the country. See more tips for homeless higher education liaisons here.
- Send an introductory email with the liaison’s contact information to all students who have self-identified as homeless on the FAFSA or through voluntary questions on college applications.
- Provide a list of homeless higher education liaisons’ contact information across the state, such as the California Community College system or University of Georgia system.
- Identify and train specific points of contact in campus offices, such as at the University of South Florida, about homelessness and ask them to accept and solicit referrals from the higher education liaison so that students are supported by a network of people who are educated about homelessness.
2. Raise Awareness of Homelessness in Higher Education
Raising awareness of homelessness not only brings attention and attracts resources to address the issue, but also reduces stigma and helps educators and community members understand its often hidden prevalence. Some ideas for raising awareness and catalyzing action include:
- Conduct a climate survey to better estimate the number of students experiencing homelessness, food insecurity, and other financial hardships, like the Food and Housing Insecurity Among NC State Students initiative.
- Host a homelessness and hunger awareness week on campus.
- Be strategic when locating food pantries/basic needs centers on campus: are they centralized or hidden?
- Discuss available services during on-campus tours, orientation, and programs throughout the year.
- Encourage students to support each other by empowering student-led advocacy.
- View more outreach strategies for students here.
3. Pursue Partnerships On and Off Campus
Multi-sector partnerships can help students get the support they need to thrive in college and beyond. Here, we describe several ways that on- and off-campus programs can complement one another to more holistically serve students experiencing homelessness.
- McKinney-Vento K-12 liaisons – Under federal law, every local educational agency must designate a liaison for homeless children and youth. These individuals are charged with identifying homeless students, supporting them throughout high school, and enabling verification of independent student status on the FAFSA for unaccompanied homeless youth pursuing postsecondary education. Working with K-12 liaisons can ensure a smooth transition to higher education.
- Shelters and Homeless Services – It is important for campus staff to be knowledgeable about local shelters and homeless assistance programs that are appropriate for young adults. These programs may be able to provide short-term housing and provide stability for students to continue college.
- Food Pantries/Basic Needs Offices – If there is a food pantry/basic needs office on campus, know its location and hours. If there isn’t one on campus, find and establish relationships with local food banks/pantries by using the Feeding America’s food bank locator.
- Financial Aid – Establish a relationship with financial aid administrators who can help students fill out the FAFSA and provide verification of their homeless/foster status if necessary.
- Residence Life and Housing – Work with individuals in Residence Life/Housing to secure housing for students on campus if available. Establish an emergency housing program that students can use throughout the school year and during breaks. For more information, see our Housing Tip Sheet.
- Student Support Offices – Offices like TRIO, Dean of Students, Student Health, Counseling and Mental Health Services, EOP/S, and others are great partners and advocates for homeless and foster youth. Make sure these offices are connected to homelessness initiatives.
4. Enhance Existing Programs
- Reach out to Kennesaw State University to utilize their KSU CARES Roadmap program. This multi-level program works with colleges and universities directly to build or enhance their program to support special populations like students with experience in homelessness or foster care.
- Create a case management guide specifically for your school, similar to the John Burton Advocates for Youth Check-In Guide.
- Collaborate with Residential Life and Housing to keep residence halls open during break periods. For more information, see our Housing Tip Sheet.
- Partner with organizations that repurpose food or turn them into frozen meals like Food For Free and Daniel’s Table.
- Allow students to give up meal swipes to students in need of dining hall meals like at UCSC Swipes for Slugs. Swipe Out Hunger started at UCLA and has expanded nationally by partnering with colleges where students can donate their extra meal swipes to their peers.
- Match first-year students with upperclassmen and create a homeless peer mentorship program similar to that at Middle Tennessee State University’s Next Step Mentor program. Likewise, faculty and staff can also serve as mentors to help students navigate college life like at Florida International University’s Fostering Panther Pride Program.
- Rather than giving out book vouchers or purchasing textbooks for students, create a lending library like at Imperial Valley College. They found out that students were more likely to borrow a book and return it for another student to use rather than accepting book vouchers.
5. Be Intentional About Advertising Programs and Services
Campus-based programs may have limited effectiveness if students aren’t aware of resources, don’t know how to access them, or choose not to access them due to stigma. According to a national report analyzing emergency aid programs, most grants, loans, vouchers, etc. are not widely advertised. Higher education professionals acknowledged that more students would benefit from knowing about emergency aid, but they expressed a concern that increased marketing could result in student demand that would outweigh existing resources. Word-of-mouth, followed by targeted communication to certain student populations, are the primary methods of disseminating information, yet these methods limit students’ ability to access resources. To improve access while honoring students’ dignity, we recommend some of the following strategies:
- Implement campus-based initiatives that are available to the whole campus community, including students, faculty, and staff.
- Provide private places where students can meet, if desired.
- Integrate services and resources to prospective students during the campus tour and admissions to normalize and welcome students who might worry about not belonging because of their financial barriers.
6. Be Creative about Strategies for Funding Campus-Based Programs
Most campus-based support programs are funded by individual donors, foundations, or an operational budget. However, new sources of funding may be necessary to keep up with increasing demand. Staffing may be another challenge, especially if responsibilities are added to existing roles. To manage these challenges, we suggest the following tactics:
- Targeted outreach to alumni. No more than 2% of institutions in an emergency aid study reported alumni giving as a primary funding source for emergency aid.
- Allow employees to donate using an employee payroll deduction form like at Kennesaw State University. Kennesaw also has a tiered-sponsorship opportunity for faculty, alumni, or other friends of the institution.
- Partner with a local restaurant to host a fundraising event.
- Host a 5K or other race event where proceeds go towards campus-based funding.
- Some campuses are purposefully staffing their office with graduate students. At CSULB, their Student Emergency Intervention and Wellness Program is staffed with Masters of Social Work students. These students, supervised by experienced professionals, might need required internships as a part of their graduate programs and come as an unfunded but proactive labor force. Another option is to check in with your local AmeriCorps Vista program for volunteers.
7. Include Students in Building Programs
- Incorporate student leadership in initiatives. Student governments across the nation are assisting in the development of programs and services. Sacramento State’s student government, Association Students Inc (ASI), offers childcare and a food pantry for students in need.
- Make sure that students are represented in task forces or working groups that are helping build or shape these support programs.
- University of Michigan students created a “Not-Rich Guide at UM” that many other institutions have replicated on their own campuses. Work with the students who are creating this guide to provide resources and find the missing gaps in services.
- Pay students for their services or offer stipends when they participate in speaking events, conferences, or more.
- Learn more about students’ needs on our Youth Connection Page.
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.
- Kennesaw State University’s CARE Program
- Florida State University’s Unconquered Scholars Program
- Sacramento State’s Case Management Office
- University of California, Santa Cruz’s Slug Support Services
- CSU, Long Beach Basic Needs Program
- West Chester University’s Promise Program
- Middle Tennessee State University’s Next Step Program
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.
Identification and Outreach
Higher education professionals might consider these strategies to identify parenting students who are experiencing homelessness.
- Partner with Financial Aid to use the FAFSA to identify students under age 24 who have listed dependents and, therefore, might be parenting youth who are struggling to meet basic needs. To learn more about other practices for identifying homeless college students, see our Identification Tip Sheet.
- Work with Admissions to see if students submitted college essays about being a parenting student. These students might be eligible for specific programs or scholarships.
- Consider using Endicott College’s Family Friendly Campus Toolkit to create a survey to assess and understand the needs of parenting students on campus.
- Provide trainings to faculty and staff about parenting students and their rights under Title IX.
- Work with faculty and deans directly to create priority enrollment or flexibility with class scheduling for parenting students.
- When advertising events and speakers on campus, include information about whether the event would be appropriate for children (including ages).
- Provide information well in advance to parenting students concerning field trips or lectures that are strongly encouraged or mandatory so that they have ample time to find appropriate child care.
- Connect parenting students with the Title IX coordinator on campus so that they are aware of their rights. Northern Virginia Community College created a FAQ for parenting students.
- San Diego State University has a Pregnant and Parenting Students Initiative (PSSI) and is conducting a survey to learn more about pregnant and parenting students at SDSU to assess eligibility for priority registration as a parenting student and to gather information to inform programming and resources.
- Purdue University offers married and family apartment-style housing. This area includes yard space and a playground and is conveniently located near campus for an easy commute to class.
- Some institutions, like Misericordia University, provide furnished housing year-round for single mothers. In addition to providing housing, Misericordia also covers costs of textbooks, meal plans, medical needs, and laundry access for single mothers and even provides them the opportunity to study abroad.
- Wilson College, among others, has a Single Parent Scholar Program which provides not only housing to single parents, but also ongoing case management, emotional readiness, time management, financial workshops, and other life skills.
- On-campus child care can provide a safe, supportive place for children while parents are taking classes. Some campuses provide free child care for children up to a certain age. Wilson College will cover the cost of child care for school age children at the YMCA. Child care services should extend to the evening for students taking night classes. The Isabel Patterson Child Development Center at CSU Long Beach serves as a family support service for the entire campus community, including faculty and staff, but prioritizes students first.
- Other institutions, like Columbus State University, provide child care subsidies for eligible Juniors and Seniors by partnering with an outside service provider.
- Student parents can use federal financial aid, including loans, to help pay for child care by asking their college to provide a “dependent care allowance,” such as at the University of California Merced. Institutions should inform eligible students about this allowance.
Supporting the Children of Parenting Students
- Create a child-friendly study lounge like the Family Resource Center at Los Angeles Valley College where parenting students can study. Tutors are available to help both children and parents with school work or enriching play activities.
- The Early Learning Center at Everett Community College provides a safe, nurturing, and stimulating environment that values child development through play-based learning. The center provides a reduced rate and priority enrollment for parenting students enrolled in a minimum of 3 credits.
- Because of the stresses their student parents face, there is a danger that children of students might come to view school and education negatively, perceiving it to be the source of their parents’ stress. To encourage and create a more positive relationship with school and education, some institutions–like Ohio State–are creating a mentoring program pairing children with other college students.
- Consider investing in and covering the costs of children’s activities, like sports or clubs. Misericordia University pays for one extracurricular interest per child per year. Misericordia also requires each child and their parent in their program to learn how to swim with lessons taught by the swim team as a safety skill.
- Normalize the presence of children on campus by hosting campus-wide events targeted for children, like an Easter Egg Hunt, Halloween trick-or-treating, or partnering with the library for events and having children’s books available to borrow.
- Establish relationships with nonprofits that support parenting students, like Generation Hope, which provides a scholarship to parenting students in addition to ongoing case management and professional development opportunities.
- Pursue partnerships with public housing authorities to support parenting students as “non-traditional students,” such as the partnerships and comprehensive services of Family Scholar House in Louisville, KY.
- Collaborate with your local Head Start. A report from IWPR shows that Head Start partnerships with colleges can help increase postsecondary success for parenting students. The report provides guidance for how colleges can explore setting up these programs. Learn more about how Head Start and Early Head Start programs can play a role in helping student parents identify higher education programs in their area here. To learn more about federal and state Head Start policy opportunities, see here.
- Coordinate host homes for young parents experiencing homelessness like in Arizona.
- Use the Find Your Way regional guidebook series to identify campuses that are parent friendly. Generation Hope just created the FamilyU Seal, a national certification for higher education institutions making significant strides in intentionally serving parenting students.
- Many institutions, including Sacramento State, have lactation rooms and diaper changing stations scattered throughout campus. Make sure they are private and easy to locate.
- Create a student organization for parenting students, such as Rutgers Students with Children.
- Ensure that parenting students are aware of existing resources on campus, like a food bank/pantry or emergency funds, by creating a website dedicated to existing resources like at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, or use print materials like table tents or posters.
- Include diapers, formula, and other supplies in food pantries/banks and convenience stores on campus.
- Have maternity clothing or baby/children’s clothing in clothing banks, if available, or host child clothing exchanges.
- Provide high chairs in the dining hall and allow children to eat for free or at a discounted price in the dining hall. Some parenting students might be required to have a meal plan, which can be a problem if the children are not included in the plan. Eating at the dining hall is easy and convenient for parents if their children can eat there, too.
- Provide child care during counseling sessions, such as those offered at Los Angeles Valley College Family Resource Center. Ascend at the Aspen Institute published a brief focused on the mental health needs of parenting students that can be downloaded here.
- When building new construction, consider the placement of lactation rooms and changing stations in restrooms.
- Consider partnering with Disability Services and co-branding resources to show ADA accessible entrances that are also stroller friendly.
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.