What GAO Found
Available research suggests that a lower percentage of youth who have been in foster care enroll in and complete college compared to other youth, but little is known about homeless youth. While the Departments of Education (Education) and Health and Human Services (HHS) administer programs that can help them with college, Education data from 2009 (the latest available) indicate that a lower percentage of foster youth complete a bachelor's degree within 6 years (14 percent) compared to other students (31 percent). Education has begun to collect data on homeless youth and plans to have some college completion information by 2017. Education data also show that homeless and foster youth who attend college pursue an associate's degree to a greater extent than other students.
Homeless and foster youth experience challenges, such as weak academic foundations, limited family support, and lack of awareness of available financial resources, making it harder for them to pursue college, according to stakeholders GAO interviewed. With few adults in their lives, homeless and foster youth in GAO discussion groups said it is hard to navigate complex college application and financial aid processes. Education officials and other stakeholders told GAO that these youth are often not aware of financial resources for college. Federal law requires Education to provide accessible information on financial aid, but its website has limited information on college resources directed towards homeless and foster youth. The lack of easily accessible and tailored information can make it difficult for these youth to learn about and obtain federal assistance for college.
Burdensome program rules can make it more difficult for unaccompanied homeless youth (those not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian) and older foster youth to obtain federal financial assistance for college.
- Homeless youth: Unaccompanied homeless youth are required by law to have their status verified by either an official of specified federal homeless programs or a college financial aid administrator each time they apply for federal grants and loans. Obtaining documentation from specified program officials after the first year of college can be difficult because these programs generally do not serve homeless youth throughout college and because Education guidance on the role of these officials is unclear. Further, according to Education officials and other stakeholders, financial aid staff are often reluctant to determine that a student is unaccompanied and homeless without making extensive documentation requests, yet homeless youth living in a car or tent can find it difficult to document these tenuous living situations.
- Foster youth: Age criteria in federal law can hinder access to an HHS program that provides a voucher for college expenses to foster youth up to age 23, but only if they were receiving the voucher at age 21. Foster youth who start college after age 21 are not eligible for the voucher.
These barriers to accessing financial assistance contribute to the challenges these youth face trying to attend and complete college, but Education and HHS have not developed legislative proposals to address them.
Why GAO Did This Study
Homeless youth and youth in foster care are often unprepared for the transition to adulthood. Given the economic benefits of college, GAO was asked to examine the college experiences of these vulnerable youth.
GAO examined (1) college enrollment and completion for foster and homeless youth, (2) the extent to which challenges these youth face affect their ability to pursue college, and (3) the extent to which program barriers hinder these youth from obtaining federal financial assistance for college. GAO analyzed the most recently available Education data—two enrollment data sets, for 2011-2012 and 2013-2014, and data on college completion from 2009; reviewed relevant federal laws and guidance; interviewed officials from Education and HHS, as well as external groups knowledgeable about higher education, foster youth, and homelessness; and held discussion groups with foster and homeless youth.
GAO is making six recommendations to Education and HHS to improve homeless and foster youth access to financial assistance for college, including centralizing college information for these youth on Education's website, clarifying Education guidance, and considering legislative proposals to simplify federal requirements for homeless and foster youth. HHS agreed with these recommendations while Education generally did not agree or disagree, but described actions it was taking in response to the recommendations.
Recommendations for Executive Action
|Department of Education||1. To help foster and unaccompanied homeless youth better navigate the college admissions and federal student aid processes, the Secretaries of Education and HHS should jointly study potential options for encouraging and enabling child welfare caseworkers, McKinney-Vento homeless youth liaisons, and other adults who work with these youth to more actively assist them with college planning.|
|Department of Health and Human Services||2. To help foster and unaccompanied homeless youth better navigate the college admissions and federal student aid processes, the Secretaries of Education and HHS should jointly study potential options for encouraging and enabling child welfare caseworkers, McKinney-Vento homeless youth liaisons, and other adults who work with these youth to more actively assist them with college planning.|
|Department of Education||3. To help foster and unaccompanied homeless youth, as well as adults who assist these youth, better navigate the federal student aid process and obtain information about college resources, the Secretary of Education, in consultation with the Secretary of HHS, should create webpages directed to homeless and foster youth so they can more easily find tailored and centralized information about available federal and other resources, such as Pell Grants, Chafee Education and Training Voucher Program (Chafee ETV Vouchers), and waivers for college admission tests.|
|Department of Education||4. To help college financial aid administrators more effectively implement eligibility rules for unaccompanied homeless youth, the Secretary of Education should make available an optional worksheet or form that college financial aid administrators can voluntarily use to document unaccompanied homeless youth status or encourage the use of existing forms that are available.|
|Department of Education||5. To help homeless youth more easily access federal student aid, the Secretary of Education should clarify its guidance to financial aid administrators and students about whether financial aid administrators should accept any unaccompanied homeless youth determination provided by McKinney-Vento homeless liaisons or other authorized officials even if a student is not in high school or receiving program services.|
|Department of Education||6. To enhance access to federal student aid for unaccompanied homeless youth, the Secretary of Education should consider developing a legislative proposal for congressional action to simplify the application process so that once a student has received an initial determination as an unaccompanied homeless youth, the student will not be required to have that status re-verified in subsequent years but attest to their current status on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, unless a financial aid administrator has conflicting information.|
|Department of Health and Human Services||7. To simplify program rules for Chafee ETV vouchers and improve access to these vouchers for former foster youth ages 21 and 22, the Secretary of HHS should consider developing a legislative proposal for congressional action to allow foster youth to be eligible for the Chafee ETV voucher until age 23 without also requiring that they start using the voucher before they turn 21.|