In October 2020, SchoolHouse connection published a report, “FAFSA & Homeless Youth: Challenges + Recommendations in the COVID-19 Era,” regarding the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) among homeless youth during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many students that are filling out the FAFSA are “dependent students,” which typically means the student is under the age of 24. According to the Higher Education Act, youth considered “dependent students” must provide parental income on the FAFSA to be eligible for any type of aid. This poses a problem for unaccompanied homeless youth trying to receive federal aid for higher education.
Prior to the COVID-19 outbreak that happened in March of 2020, about 4.2 million youth and young adults have experienced homelessness on their own each year. The pandemic outbreak and economic crisis have pushed even more youth to homelessness. Danny, a SchoolHouse Connection scholar, stated in his testimonial, “Financial for unaccompanied homeless youth can be really tricky with all of the forms and verifications needed to receive aid. It is even more difficult now that COVID-19 makes it so you cannot go in person to the financial aid office.” Danny’s struggle is just one of the many unaccompanied homeless youth faces while trying to receive aid.
In June of 2020, a national survey found that 11 percent of students at two-year institutions and 15 percent of students at four-year institutions experienced homelessness due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This pandemic has complicated service provisions for many service providers. The service providers must adapt to meet social distancing and other health and safety guidelines to keep their clients safe. Danny stated, “Communicating over email is also hard, and I found that it made the process much longer. I think during this pandemic it’s going to be really important that financial aid offices reach out to students and support them while also making changes to documentation requirements to make the process easily doable for students.”
There are many challenges that homeless students are facing while completing the FAFSA during the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of these barriers include: students and staff not having access to printers during the pandemic, causing them not to be able to sign documents, high school students have experienced challenges in contacting local educational agencies and liaisons, having delays in emails resulting in missing deadlines, institutions sending lengthy emails and not providing any follow-up methods with the prospective students, which further delayed the FAFSA application process for many homeless youth, and some institutions have required students to write personal statements regarding their homelessness and requiring them to get that document notarized, requiring notarization has always been a barrier, but with the pandemic, it becomes an even more daunting task.
According to the report, one in five institutions requires students to complete the FAFSA to be eligible for emergency assistance places additional hurdles for homeless youth in the time of the greatest needs. The SchoolHouse report recommended policy changes at the state and federal level to help remove those barriers for homeless youth. Congress should amend the Higher Education Act to streamline and remove barriers to financial aid for unaccompanied homeless youth by passing the Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless Foster Youth Act (S.789/H.R1724). These legislations will make it easier for homeless youth to access the resources they need to succeed while pursuing post-secondary education.
A concerted effort is needed at every level, in policy and practice, along with philanthropy, to ensure that youth experiencing homelessness receive financial aid and are able to complete post-secondary education, obtain a livable wage employment, and avoid homelessness for themselves and their children.