It’s hard enough for most students to navigate the college system — applications for financial aid, registration fees, housing deposits — but imagine trying to do it while dealing with the instability of being homeless.
That is the reality for more than 56,000 college students who identified as homeless on the federal financial aid application last year, yet advocates say the number is likely higher because many students are not filling out the form. Though the government has made it easier for homeless students to access loans and grants, and colleges are becoming more adept at supporting the population, students still face significant barriers to graduation.
U.S. Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) this week reintroduced legislation to end financial aid requirements that ask students to verify their living situation every year and supply documentation stating they’re homeless. The measure also calls on schools to provide a point of contact for students and year-round housing.
“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, further their education, and succeed,” said Murray, the ranking member on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.
When the bill was introduced two years ago, it failed to garner Republican support. But with Congress preparing to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, there is renewed hope that lawmakers will give the legislation a chance.
An aide for Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chair of the HELP Committee, said he will “review the legislation carefully,” noting that one of the goals of the reauthorization is to “simplify federal aid programs to help more students afford college.”
Congress broadened the definition of “independent student” on the FAFSA to include unaccompanied homeless youth in 2007, making it easier for students to get loans and grants without financial documentation from their parents.
Students must be declared homeless or at risk of becoming homeless by the director of a federally funded shelter or a high-school counselor before they can check a box indicating their status on the FAFSA. That kind of proof can get more difficult to obtain in the second or third year of college, advocates say.
And while financial aid administrators can wave a student through with an interview, advocates say the process is subjective, as some have students jump through hoops to prove they qualify.
“We find students still being asked to go back and try to find their parents even though their parents are no longer in their lives, and that creates a lot of hurdles for them,” said Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.
Homeless students also run into trouble when school breaks for summer or the holidays, leaving them with no place to go. Colleges typically allow international students and athletes whose sports are in season to remain on campus during those times, but few extend the offer to homeless students.
Murray’s bill addresses the inequity by requiring colleges to provide housing resources during and between academic terms. The senator wants schools to develop a game plan for getting students information about on-campus and community resources.
Ten states, including Colorado, Georgia and Florida, have policies in place to identify and provide basic needs and educational support to homeless high school students transitioning to college, according to the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth. The organization is working with Virginia and a few other states to develop networks to help the population.
“The overall population of students who are homeless trying to transition from high school to college is significant and growing,” Duffield said.
Public schools reported a total of 1.3 million homeless children in the 2013-2014 school year, double the amount recorded before the 2008 recession, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
“One of the things that works really well is to assign a person on campus to help homeless and foster youth if they need counseling or assistance with admissions,” Duffield said. “It really makes a difference.”
Tamara Wanner, 31, said it would have been useful to have had some campus support system when she entered Heritage University in Washington in 2006. At the time, she was bouncing from one couch to another with her severely ill mother and toddler in tow.
It wasn’t until her second semester that Wanner could pull together enough money from her job at KFC to afford a place. Even then, she moved her family from one run-down apartment to another, relying heavily on student loans to cover living expenses.
“Sometimes you just need somebody to shake you out of survival mentality, tell you that things will get better, you will get your degree,” said Wanner, who graduated in 2008 with a degree in educational psychology. “Nobody was there to tell me those things, and I struggled, especially because it was such a secret and I felt so ashamed.”
While in school, Wanner signed up for the federal Student Support Services program, which let her borrow some of her textbooks, but what she really needed was help with living expenses. She amassed $45,000 in student loans to cover rent and buy food, despite receiving several scholarships and grants for tuition and fees.
Wanner wonders whether she could have avoided taking on so much debt if she had help figuring out what services were available to her.
“It would have been really helpful if there had been someone to say ‘students can go to this clothing drive’ or ‘we’re going to help you get food or navigate financial aid so you don’t take out $45,000 in loans,'” she said. “I wasn’t taking out loans to live well — we went without heat during the winter and put cardboard in the windows to keep the cold out — I was taking out loans for survival.”