Lexi Geampa didn’t think she would be able to go to college.
She was couch surfing with friends during her senior year of high school and needed to be verified as an unaccompanied homeless youth in order to receive federal financial aid because she doesn’t have parents to support her. She did eventually receive that determination and enrolled at Oregon State University, where she’s now a sophomore. But, every academic year, she has to reverify her status with college administrators to continue to receive aid, which she said is frustrating.
Even though she’s not in the same situation as she was in high school, she said, “It’s hard for me to focus on continuing forward when I’m constantly having to go back in the past and talk about those struggles.”
When Geampa goes to apply for financial aid for her senior year, she won’t have to go through that experience—one of several changes coming to the new version of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid that advocates say will make it easier for students who are at risk of or are experiencing homelessness to access financial aid. Among other changes, students will have to answer one question instead of the current three about their status, and they won’t have to recertify their status every year.
“More than anything, it gives me a huge sense of relief and support for me to know that I will hopefully be able to understand the FAFSA questions better and I won’t have to go through the process of resharing my story of how I am considered a homeless youth,” she said.
Currently, students who are younger than 24 years old have to provide their parents’ tax information on the FAFSA. Students who are determined to be unaccompanied homeless youth don’t have to provide parental information. That annual determination process, which includes college financial aid administrators, can be retraumatizing for students but is critical to unlocking aid, said Barbara Duffield, executive director of SchoolHouse Connection, a nonprofit that works with and advocates for youth experiencing homelessness.
Duffield said that the determination changes are among the most significant changes for this group of students in the FAFSA Simplification Act, which passed in 2020 and overhauled how federal financial aid is doled out. The new version of the application is set to launch later this year for the 2024–25 academic year.
Under the FAFSA Simplification Act, students will only have to go through the determination process once unless they have a change in circumstance or move institutions. Additionally, the act expanded the group of entities that could verify that a student was homeless or at risk of becoming homeless. A documented determination from those entities is sufficient, so institutions shouldn’t request additional documentation, proof or statements unless it has conflicting information, according to Education Department guidance.
“Those are really huge pieces in terms of cutting down the barriers, the documentation, all of the retraumatizing elements that can delay aid or cause you to stop out entirely,” Duffield said, adding that the changes would open doors for students and boost retention.
Determinations of unaccompanied homeless youth dropped by about 10 percent in the 2020–21 academic year—the first decline in the last five years, according to a fall 2022 report from SchoolHouse Connection about the financial aid barriers this group of students experiences.
For the 2023–24 award year, institutions had to manually adjust students’ financial aid forms to carry forward their homeless status as part of the phased implementation of the simplification act.
The department released its guidance on determinations for unaccompanied homeless youth last month as part of its effort to prepare to launch the new FAFSA.
Duffield applauded the guidance, which she hopes will increase awareness about how the law is changing and what it means for colleges and universities. Her organization regularly receives inquiries from individuals who don’t know about the changes.
“I just grew very gravely concerned that this is getting overlooked and that old practices were continuing,” she said. “There’s just so many changes happening that changes like this are pretty easy to overlook unless they have their own specific guidance.”
Signe Lynch, coordinator of education and employment support services at New Beginnings, a shelter for runaway and homeless youth in Maine, wrote in an email that the new FAFSA will help to reduce stigma and increase the opportunities for unaccompanied homeless youth to access higher education.
“The FAFSA changes also provide additional important clarity that experiencing homelessness does not equate to just living on the streets and strives to encompass the broader realities of young people facing the challenges of housing situations that are not fixed, regular, or adequate,” Lynch wrote.
Lynch is currently able to provide determination letters for students at the shelter, but she has seen youth struggle to obtain verification letters from school district staff and pushback from college administrators about whether a student qualifies as independent.
“For many youth, these barriers to being able to easily navigate financial aid and the college process were enough to keep them away from their higher education goals, and with the current changes in place, we will be able to better support this population in accessing higher education and long-term career and financial goals,” Lynch wrote.
Fewer Questions, Documents Required
Jill Desjean, senior policy analyst with the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said the department has simplified the process for unaccompanied homeless youth determinations over the years via guidance, and the FAFSA Simplification Act builds on those changes.
“It used to be really difficult to prove, and students would have to jump through a lot of hoops, and then various changes—legislative, regulatory and guidance-related—have happened over the past few years to make it a little bit easier,” she said, adding that the homeless status has been tricky for students for a long time.
The challenges for students start with the FAFSA. The three separate questions on the current form are wordy, technical and complicated, she said. Under the new form, students will just have to answer yes to no to one question, according to the draft FAFSA.
“That alone is a pretty big jump to just have a single homelessness question instead of all these separate ones,” she said.
|2023–24 FAFSA Questions||2024–25 Draft FAFSA Questions|
|—At any time on or after July 1, 2022, did your high school or school district homeless liaison determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?|
—At any time on or after July 1, 2022, did the director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?
—At any time on or after July 1, 2022, did the director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?
| —At any time on or after July 1, 2023, was the student unaccompanied and either (1) homeless or (2) self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?”|
If the answer is “Yes,” did any of the following determine the student was homeless or at risk of becoming homeless?
—Director or designee of an emergency or transitional shelter, street outreach program, homeless youth drop-in center, or other program serving those experiencing homelessness
—The student’s high school or school district homeless liaison or designee
Director or designee of a project supported by a federal TRIO or GEAR UP program grant
—Financial Aid administration
—None of these apply
After a student successfully completes the form, they encounter the next hurdle—the determination process. Absent a written determination from a school district homeless liaison office or a shelter director, among others, financial aid administrators have to decide whether a student qualifies as an unaccompanied homeless youth.
For the 2023–24 award year, the department said, institutions must review all determination requests as quickly as possible but not later than 60 days after the student enrolls.
Desjean said financial aid administrators “were always told, like, dig, dig, dig and find out more,” but that approach shifted over the years following department guidance that gave institutions more flexibility and said that students didn’t have to provide additional documentation beyond a statement.
“That was the first step in making life easier for homeless students to get financial aid,” she said.
Geampa learned the hard way that the current questions can be tricky. She filled out the form on her own in her freshman year and ended up receiving less financial aid. When she filled out the form this academic year with the help of SchoolHouse Connection, she saw her expected financial aid increase.
“I thought I understood what I was doing. I was a little confident, and I learned my lesson,” she said. “Filling it out correctly can make a huge difference in the aid you’ll receive and also will change your outlook of ‘OK, I can do this. This is manageable or this is kind of tough.’”
Geampa said the changes to the FAFSA give her a sense of security about her financial aid, her education and the path forward. After living on campus for the last two years, she’s getting ready to move into her own apartment this summer. She’s studying human development and family sciences with the goal of working with youth experiencing homelessness.
“I thought that I was going to continue down the path that my family had set for me, but education ultimately is giving me hope that I can do something different than what I’ve been shown and just create a better life for myself,” she said.