US lawmakers seek increased support for homeless, foster care college students

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A recent national bipartisan bill aims to remove barriers to college for students facing homelessness or transitioning out of foster care.

The Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act, introduced to the U.S. Congress on Sept. 12, would facilitate the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, process for unaccompanied youth and push universities to expand support for homeless students nationwide.

“For many students, higher education can be a ticket to the middle class, so it is vitally important that students from all walks of life have the chance to go to college,” said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Washington, one of the four bill sponsors, in a press release. 

Federal laws, such as the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act, mandate states to ensure homeless students receive equal access to education, resources and support. Support for unaccompanied homeless students often becomes limited after high school. However, 89 percent of the unaccompanied homeless youth counted nationwide on a single night in 2016 were between the ages of 18 and 24, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. 

“The needs of students in homeless situations vary on case-by-case situation, but the truth is, there’s not a lot that is available as far as direct funding and direct access to higher education,” said Jeanne Stamp, director of the Texas Homeless Education Office. 

Under state law, youth transitioning from Texas foster care are eligible for tuition waivers and Pell grants if they enroll in college before the age of 25 via university foster care liaisons, which the recently introduced bill would like to expand similarly nationwide. For homeless college students in Texas, however, assistance is currently limited to FAFSA aid, Stamp said. 

The FAFSA application currently requires students to provide parental information unless they can prove to be unaccompanied youth through a high school or college official. If passed, the introduced bill would allow more students to apply for aid as independent unaccompanied youth or homeless students, said Christine Gauger, UT financial aid assistant director. 

However, Stamp said colleges do not have workers to identify homeless students such as at K-12 schools. 

“One of the difficult things is just identifying students in homeless situations when they’re not (living) on a college campus,” Stamp said. “(For) kids that are maybe couch surfing, staying from place to place, maybe staying in their car … the college might not even know about it because they don’t really have a process for identifying those kids.”

Gauger said UT’s financial aid office does not currently track students that apply for FAFSA as independent
unaccompanied youth. 

Tym Belseth, a former foster care student and a researcher at the School of Social Work, said the number of former foster care students at UT is very small because many do not make it to college, despite the available financial aid in Texas. Often, homeless or foster care youth such as Belseth have to change schools or move towns multiple times growing up.

Belseth said this instability makes it even harder to graduate and learn the life skills necessary for college.

“I do appreciate people considering this issue because it shows their hearts are in the right place, but it’s not going to be fixed that easily,” Belseth said.