FAFSA Victory for Unaccompanied Homeless Youth
A NAEHCY Perspective
Cyekeia Lee, Director of Higher Education Initiatives
Last month, the U.S. Department of Education announced that it will make two substantial changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to better support unaccompanied homeless youth. First, beginning with the 2017-18 application that comes online this fall, the Department will change the text on the FAFSA on the web to be more supportive of unaccompanied homeless youth. Second, for the 2018-19 application, the Department will remove the definition of “youth.” This change will allow unaccompanied 22- and 23-year-old applicants to indicate that they are homeless or at risk of being homeless. This will make the financial aid determination process smoother for students in this age range who are seeking to be considered independent. These and many other improvements in financial aid access for homeless youth, which NAEHCY has been advocating since 2010, were the result of the leadership of U.S. Senator Patty Murray of Washington.
The changes to the online 2017-18 application and the removal of the definition of “youth” in the 2018-19 application are indeed victories for our homeless students, and no one could be more thrilled about the changes than I. It’s been four years since I came on board as NAEHCY’s Director of Higher Education, and in that time I’ve received over 3,000 calls and emails via our higher education helpline. Each year, the two topics that I receive the most calls about are FAFSA completion for unaccompanied homeless youth, and challenges in getting a determination of unaccompanied homeless youth status in order to receive financial aid.
Of all the calls and emails received to date, I can think of one student who would have benefited from such changes the most. Deon, a 22-year old homeless student attending a community college in New Jersey, was too old to be considered a “youth,” but too young to find stable housing on his own. He was fleeing physical abuse in the home, forced to sleep house to house, and he found himself with one less place to lay his head after he went to his grandmother’s house and found that she had committed suicide. In all of this turmoil, all he wanted to do was complete his FAFSA, access his financial aid, and get one step closer to achieving his academic goals. However, at 22 there was no way for him to self-identify his unaccompanied homeless status on the FAFSA. This resulted in him having to complete a Dependency Override Appeal in order to receive financial aid. The appeal approval came after several phone calls, emails, letters, documents, and many shed tears. I can’t help but imagine how much easier his FAFSA completion could have been had he just been able to self-identify his homeless status on the FAFSA, streamlining the process for him to receive his aid.
It is my hope that through these FAFSA changes, unaccompanied homeless students between the ages of 22 and 23 no longer have to face the same barriers as Deon did. I also hope that our higher education institutions realize that 22 –and- 23 year old homeless students still struggle with balancing the trauma of their past, their current academic goals, and the difficulties of finding stable housing. Lastly, as we move beyond the barriers of financial aid for homeless students, I hope that everyone realizes that financial aid is only one key component needed to retain students on campus. Much more work needs to be done to help retain and graduate our unaccompanied homeless students. NAEHCY will continue the work it began so many years ago on FAFSA to ensure that all homeless youth have the support they need to complete their higher education and fulfill their dreams.