The Education Department is revising the federal financial aid application to make it easier for homeless college students to access loans and grants, in response to requests from Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.).

Murray, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee, has sent letters urging the department to simplify requirements that ask students to verify their living situation every year and supply documentation stating they’re homeless. She has taken issue with instructions in the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, that tell homeless students that all decisions are final, implying that they cannot contact the department with questions or concerns about their status. Murray also noted that the department’s definition of “youth” in the FAFSA excludes older students who are dealing with the instability of being homeless.

Education Secretary John B. King Jr. said Monday in a letter responding to Murray that the department would clarify the language in the application and streamline the process for determining the status of some 22- and 23-year-old applicants who indicate that they are homeless. All students who say they are homeless or at risk of being homeless on the FAFSA, not just those younger than 21, will be able to indicate that a designated official, such as a school counselor or social worker, vouched for them. This will help older students get through the process of being designated homeless a little faster. Changes will take effect beginning with the 2018-2019 award year.

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Murray called the department’s actions “a strong step forward to tackle some of the barriers that unaccompanied homeless students face in accessing higher education.” She said there are “serious roadblocks these students face in applying for and receiving financial aid, so I’m particularly glad to see that the Department is correcting inconsistencies and burdensome requirements on the FAFSA form.”

There are more than 56,000 college students who identified as homeless on the federal financial aid application in 2014, although advocates say the number is likely higher because many students are not filling out the form. Congress expanded 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, but it would take an act of Congress to change this statutory requirement. Although financial aid administrators can wave a student through with an interview, advocates say students often have to jump through hoops to prove they qualify.

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“Higher education is a lasting path out of homelessness, yet homeless youth face barriers to accessing the financial aid they need to complete their college education. The policy changes remove many of those barriers, allowing homeless youth to focus on their studies and their future,” said Barbara Duffield, policy director of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Murray has introduced legislation on several occasions to overhaul the process and require schools to provide a point of contact for students and year-round housing. Although the bills failed to garner Republican support, lawmakers may well take up the legislation during the re-authorization of the Higher Education Act.

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