In College, Without a Home

Aid officers consider how they can help the growing population of homeless students.
July 21, 2011

BOSTON -- For homeless college students, even the smallest details can become big hurdles: a $5 student ID, a housing or enrollment deposit, a place to keep a birth certificate or Social Security card.

Financial aid officers are often the ones who have to confront these issues. And as homelessness has increased during the recession, the population of college students who are homeless and without their parents is likely to grow in the coming years, financial aid officials were told at the annual conference of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators here on Tuesday.

The College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 made it easier for institutions to identify and help homeless students, presenters said. Because such identification is frequently accomplished through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, financial aid administrators often have the first, and closest, contacts with that population.

“Now we have regulations in place where we can help these students access and go through higher education,” said Misti Ruthven, college access director at the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “This is not a new population. We just have a better way to identify them.”

The population is also growing, she said. The number of homeless youth has increased 69 percent in the past two years, to 1.6 million. Some are runaways; others are from chaotic family situations, maintaining contact with parents and siblings but spending the majority of nights on friends’ couches or in cars or mobile homes.

In a video presentation at the session, several homeless high school students spoke about the difficulties of completing homework on time. But many such students still succeed academically: in Colorado, homeless students were valedictorian at several high schools, Ruthven said. And colleges, with their stable residence halls and available student services, can be an ideal environment where many thrive.

“Unaccompanied homeless youth are a little bit of everyone, and they come with very inspiring stories,” Ruthven said. “College is a great environment for them.”

For many administrators in the audience, this was not a surprise. The majority said they were from two-year colleges, and nearly all, including those from four-year colleges, said they had encountered homeless students recently.

The changes in the 2007 legislation made it easier for homeless students to get more financial aid: they are now automatically classified as independent students without the need for a waiver, even if they are younger than 24, the traditional age at which students are considered independent. For independent students, only their income and assets are considered in awarding federal financial aid; for dependent students, aid awards are based on the parents' situation. In the past, unaccompanied homeless students had to file for a “dependency override” to prove that they were no longer dependent on their parents, a complicated process for students whose relationships and living arrangements could be chaotic, said Jennifer Martin, senior content development specialist with NASFAA.

An expanded section of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid includes questions on whether or not a student is considered homeless, and a “certification” from a service provider at the elementary or secondary school level is enough to trigger independent status. (Students who have been abused or who are at risk of becoming homeless are also considered independent.)

Getting students to realize they are homeless can be a challenge in itself, Ruthven said. The definition encompasses not just those staying in shelters but crowding into cramped mobile homes or couch-surfing at friends’ houses. “One of the things that first comes to my mind when I think of defining a student’s living situation is, ‘Are they living out of the charity of others?’ ” she said.

In some ways, homeless students might find it easy to adapt to the college environment. Many are already used to living communally, Ruthven said, and most have had to be diligent and determined to make it past high school.

But colleges need to be sensitive to their needs, said Dana Scott, coordinator for the education of homeless children with the Colorado Department of Education. Scott, who works with homeless children at the elementary and secondary levels, suggested assigning homeless students to residence halls open year-round, including during breaks; putting housing deposits on a bill rather than requiring them up front, so that financial aid can help pay for it; and giving students storage space to keep personal documents or belongings.

She also recommended that financial aid officers, or whoever homeless students contact initially, serve as a liaison throughout the institution, explaining the situation to admissions and housing officials so that students need not tell the same story over and over.

“The biggest single factor, in addition to motivation and knowing they can afford college, is a single supportive adult that stepped up and helped them navigate the system,” Scott said.


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