For Homeless Students, the Higher Education Act Offers Hope

The new Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act, if passed, marks a significant step toward leveling the educational playing field for disadvantaged students.
November 2, 2017
6 mins read

Once they have moved into their college dorms, students will often lament the fact that they must now suffer the unpleasantries of communal bathrooms and cramped living quarters. They might complain about the less-than-ideal conditions and express their excitement to return home to their mom’s cooking and their own bed when school breaks roll around. But these students may not realize that some of their peers don’t have a home to return to.

Granted, the majority of these homeless college students attend community colleges, where there is frequently no on-campus housing. A study that surveyed tens of thousands of community college students across the United States found that about 14 percent of them were homeless and about half were housing insecure, which meant that they had missed rent payments or that they had couch surfed, staying over at their friends’ houses. The study also showed that about two out of every three community college students are food insecure, which means that they do not have the means to feed themselves a proper amount.

Many students suffer from homelessness before college, preventing them from having access to higher education. In U.S. public schools, there are more than 1.3 million students who are homeless; another four hundred twenty-eight thousand are in foster care. Students who come from these socioeconomic backgrounds frequently lack the financial and emotional support to gain access to a college education and financial aid, through no fault of their own.

Fortunately, a bill has been proposed to help them. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in Congress–both the House of Representatives and the Senate–introduced a bill on September 12, entitled the Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act of 2017, that aims to remove barriers that are blocking homeless students and those in foster care from higher education. Congresswoman Katherine Clark, a Democrat from Massachusetts, introduced the legislation, which, among other initiatives, seeks to amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to streamline FAFSA, supply housing options for students in between terms and extend outreach to homeless students.

Republicans and Democrats in the Senate and the House of Representatives have stated that reauthorizing the Higher Education Act is a top priority in Congress. However, other committees in the Senate have many issues to bring to the table, such as healthcare, which will undoubtedly be the focus of the Congress.

This legislation is, frankly, common sense, which is why it has support across party lines. Children who grow up in the foster care system tend to face an uphill battle in pursuing higher education opportunities. Many of them age out of the foster-care system and do not know what to do next, so by creating opportunities for these children, we will have a more educated, employed youth. It is in the interest of everyone for these students to have the chance to afford housing while they study to become productive members of society.

By easing the verification and determination process for those who are unaccompanied by an adult, the Homeless and Foster Youth Act removes barriers and makes going to college more practical for homeless and foster children. It clarifies that youth under age twenty-four who are determined to be unaccompanied or homeless are considered to be independent students, allowing them to receive the full financial aid package that they need. The act also will help provide homeless and foster youth in-state tuition rates, even if they live out of state, to reduce barriers to college attendance due to lack of financial support.

In addition, by having institutions of higher education initiate a plan to aid homeless and foster youth in accessing campus-housing resources during and in between academic terms, the bill further encourages college retention, success and completion amongst homeless and foster youth. Beyond providing resources for itinerant students, the bill also implements systems that will help communicate the existence of these resources and aid to the students, which can often be a problem with homeless students, as many lack reliable access to phones, computers or power sources. The act would also collaborate with child welfare agencies, homeless service providers and school district homeless liaisons to identify, conduct outreach to and recruit homeless and foster youth to college.

College may not be for everyone, but everyone deserves to make that choice for themselves. Young people born into disadvantaged situations should not have to suffer for the circumstances of their birth if they are willing to work hard, and this bill provides them with exactly what they need—a way to level the playing field. Homeless and foster care students face challenges that traditional students will never have to imagine, ranging from the complicated logistics of transportation to lacking a place to do homework at night, but with the Higher Education Act, their odds of succeeded are improved, if only a little bit.

Lexi Lieberman, University of Pennsylvania

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Lexi Lieberman

University of Pennsylvania

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