GAO Report Highlights Obstacles for Homeless and Foster Youth Accessing Federal Financial Aid for College

The Government Accountability Office’s report, “Higher Education: Actions Needed to Improve Access to Federal Financial Assistance for Homeless and Foster Youth,” examines enrollment data from 2011-2012 and 2013-2014, and completion data from 2009, to determine ways in which access to federal financial aid impacts homeless and foster youth’s experience in college.

Researchers find that foster and homeless youth face significant challenges in the process of applying to and completing college, largely created by financial limitations. Key barriers this report identifies include a weak academic foundation, limited adult relationships and resources to help navigate the financial aid system, and burdensome regulations to proving independence and obtaining financial aid.

The study finds some similarities between foster youth and homeless youth’s experience with higher education, which deviates from other student populations. These groups are more likely to pursue an associate’s degree, and attend a two-year program compared with other students. Additionally, a smaller percentage of foster youth who start college graduate within six years, compared to the rest of the population.

Seventy two percent of foster youth have no degree or certificate within six years of starting enrollment, compared with 57 percent of low-income students and 49 percent of all other students. Less is known about graduation rates for homeless students, as the Department of Education only began to collect information on homeless youth college completion in 2011-2012.

Lower standardized test scores and higher high school dropout rates point to a weaker academic foundation for homeless and foster youth, making them less attractive candidates to many colleges. These outcomes can be the result of moving schools or homes more frequently than other students.

The homeless and foster youth whom researchers spoke with explained how interactions with adults who would encourage them to attend college, or help them navigate the complex system of financial aid, is limited. The adults they do work with, such as case workers and social service deliverers, tend to focus on basic necessities like housing, with college being a lower priority. These adult professionals may also be less familiar with the federal financial aid system and college-oriented resources available for these students. The financial burden of even applying to college without said resources can drive foster and homeless youth away.

Finally, for those who do choose to pursue a degree beyond high school, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), a required document for anyone who wants federal grants or loans, creates another set of roadblocks. Many homeless or foster students must establish status as “independent” from a parent or guardian who could support them financially.

For homeless youth in particular, obtaining the necessary documentation to prove that they’re on their own can lead to uncomfortable conversations with financial aid officers at colleges, extended hunts for multiple forms of documentation, and ultimately missed-deadlines to secure necessary funding. Streamlining the documentation process is one way that the Department of Education in particular can help alleviate the burden that homeless and foster youth face when trying to secure federal financial aid for their higher education. To learn more, click here for the complete study.

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