The resource kit released by the Education Department follows a report by the GAO earlier this month, Actions Needed to Improve Access to Federal Financial Assistance for Homeless and Foster Youth (GAO-16-343: May 19, 2016) that program rules can make it more difficult for unaccompanied homeless youth (those not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian) and older foster youth to obtain federal financial assistance for college.  These barriers to financial aid contribute to the challenges these youth face trying to attend and complete college some may require legislative proposals to address them.

The GAO concluded that foster youth face an age criterion in federal law that can limit access to the Chaffee voucher for college expenses to foster youth up to age 23.  These young people can access this assistance only if they were receiving the voucher at age 21. Foster youth who start college after age 21 are not eligible for the voucher.  The report highlighted the challenges for homeless youth required by law to have their status verified by either an official of specified federal homeless programs or a college financial aid administrator each time they apply for federal grants and loans. Getting this documentation after the first year of college can be difficult because these programs generally do not serve homeless youth throughout college and because education guidance on the role of these officials is unclear.

Education officials and financial aid staff are often reluctant to determine that a student is unaccompanied and homeless without making extensive documentation requests, yet homeless youth living in a car or tent can find it difficult to document these tenuous living situations.

The GAO report says that Education Department data from 2009 (the latest available) indicate that a lower percentage of foster youth complete a bachelor’s degree within 6 years (14 percent) compared to other students (31 percent). Education has begun to collect data on homeless youth and plans to have some college completion information by 2017. Education data also show that homeless and foster youth who attend college pursue an associate’s degree to a greater extent than other students.

The report includes six recommendations to both Education and HHS to look at strategies to encourage caseworkers and others that work with the students to better assist them in the application process: Education and HHS should develop joint websites targeted to the populations to assist them with applications; Education should develop a new optional form that will help financial officers document homeless youth status; Education should clarify eligibility for colleges and financial officers and their reliance on McKinney-Vento information; develop legislation  that will allow homeless youth to continue to qualify for aid once the initial documentation is made; allow foster youth under the Chaffee vouchers to access the vouchers after 21 and before 23;  centralize college information for these youth on Education’s website.