Higher Education: Actions Needed to Improve Access to Federal Financial Assistance for Homeless and Foster Youth
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||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.||
In 2017, Education reported that it is continuing its efforts to address the recommendation. Education and HHS have worked together to develop resources to help professionals who with foster and homeless youth be more familiar with college planning and financial assistance, become aware of programs that can help these youth, and share ideas with other professionals. In May 2016, Education, working with HHS, issued a Foster Youth Transition Toolkit, which provides useful information on the financial aid and college admissions processes for both foster youth themselves as well as professionals who work with this population. In July 2016, Education posted a Homeless Youth Fact sheet for teachers and other professionals on its website and conducted a technical assistance webinar to help McKinney-Vento homeless youth liaisons understand financial aid requirements that apply to homeless students. Further, Education has continued its collaboration with HHS to promote positive educational outcomes for disconnected youth, which include former foster and homeless youth. Both Education and HHS held webinars in 2016 to educate their grantees who work with dislocated youth (e.g., Education Student Service grantees and HHS Family and Youth Services Bureau grantees) about relevant programs at each agency that offer services to dislocated youth, such as TRIO and Gear Up programs that help dislocated youth enroll in and complete postsecondary education. In Sept. 2016, Education's Office of Student Services published a special newsletter about disconnected youth for its grantees youth that provided examples of how local organizations that received HHS and Education grants had coordinated efforts to meet the educational needs of dislocated youth; it also emphasized how homeless youth especially need encouragement and information from knowledgeable and caring adults to help equip homeless youth to enroll in and succeed in college and provided resources to help homeless youth attain their educational goals. Finally, Education noted that it selected grantees to provide training opportunities to TRIO program staff--in FY 2018, one of the priority areas was training TRIO staff to assist students in applying to college and applying for financial aid. The resources developed by Education and HHS and the training offered by Education provide useful information on college planning for homeless and foster youth and can help equip and encourage professionals to more directly help these youth with college planning.
|Department of Health and Human Services||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.||
HHS, working with the Department of Education, issued a Foster Youth Transition Toolkit in May 2016 which encourages current and former foster youth to pursue college and addresses both financial aid and college admissions processes. The toolkit was written for youth in or formerly in foster care, and HHS considers it a resource for unaccompanied homeless youth as well as for the adults who serve these youth. HHS has also collaborated with Education to promote positive educational outcomes for disconnected youth, which include former foster and homeless youth. Both Education and HHS held webinars in 2016 to educate their grantees who work with dislocated youth (e.g., Education Student Service grantees and HHS Family and Youth Services Bureau grantees) about relevant programs at each agency that offer services to dislocated youth, such as TRIO and Gear Up programs that help dislocated youth enroll in and complete postsecondary education. During CY 2017, HHS technical assistance contractor held several peer networking events to provide the opportunity for child welfare caseworkers and independent living coordinators to share information and resources about how to support youth who are transitioning out of foster care, including college planning and improving education-related supports to youth and young adults. The toolkit and information sharing activities HHS has organized provide useful information to help child welfare caseworkers actively assist foster youth with college planning.
|Department of Education||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.||
In 2019, Education created a college planning guide specifically targeted to unaccompanied homeless youth. It previously reported taking other actions to address this recommendation. In addition to having a webpage about foster youth, Education noted that it created a new web page in April 2016 with resources for homeless children and youth. In July 2016, Education developed and posted online a Foster Care Transition Toolkit and a Fact Sheet on federal student aid for homeless youth that is available through its resources webpage. These resources and websites offer helpful resources to homeless and foster youth, but the webpages focused on homeless and foster youth are more targeted to professionals who work with students rather than the students themselves and are not necessarily easy to find. As of January 2020, however, Education placed all of these materials on a Federal Student Aid webpage directed at students, which describes eligibility requirements and resources for specific student groups, including homeless youth and youth who have been in foster care.
|Department of Education||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.||
Education agreed that it would be helpful to make forms developed by outside organizations knowledgeable about homelessness issues available for financial aid administrators to use for documenting the status of unaccompanied homeless youth. Education also said that it plans to highlight the availability of these forms and provide guidance at its annual conference and in updates to the Federal Student Aid Handbook. Education noted that it will not endorse the use of a specific form but that it will highlight forms that already exist that may be useful to financial aid administrators. In January 2021, Education reported that it planned to update the Federal Student Aid Handbook by July 2021to inform financial aid administrators about the availability of such forms that have been developed by outside entities. We will monitor Education's progress and consider closing this recommendation when they provide GAO an updated handbook. As of July 2022, we are awaiting an update on Education's progress.
|Department of Education||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.||
In several resources discussing unaccompanied homeless youth determinations, Education has clarified that financial aid administrators should accept documentation from authorized officials even if a student is not receiving program services. In July 2016, Education issued guidance for the McKinney-Vento program specifying that a local liaison may continue to provide verification of a youth's homelessness status for federal student aid purposes for as long as the liaison has access to the information necessary to make such a determination for a particular youth. The guidance also stated that local homelessness liaisons should ensure that all homeless high school students receive information and counseling on college-related issues. In July 2016, Education also held a technical assistance webinar for McKinney-Vento Program liaisons that clarified that liaisons may provide an unaccompanied homeless youth determination for a youth who is no longer enrolled in the school system if they have the necessary information to make such a determination. Finally, in the 2017-18 Application and Verification Guide for financial aid administrators, Education clarified that authorized officials may provide documentation of unaccompanied homelessness for a person who is no longer officially receiving services and that local homelessness liaisons may write subsequent year letters of verification for unaccompanied homeless youth through age 23 for whom they have the necessary information to write such letters. The updated guide notes that this documentation is acceptable for verifying unaccompanied homelessness.
|Department of Education||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.||
In response to this recommendation, Education stated that it would consider the feasibility of a legislative proposal to not require re-verification of homelessness after a student has received an initial determination and that the agency would develop a decision memo on the issue. In September 2017, the Senate and House of Representatives introduced the Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act (S. 1795, HR 3740). Provisions in these bills, which remove the requirement that unaccompanied homeless students must have their status re-determined every year (unless conflicting information exists), address this recommendation.
|Department of Health and Human Services||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.||
HHS agreed with this recommendation. On February 9, 2018, the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2018 (Public Law 115-123) was enacted into law and included a provision that effectively implemented the intent behind this recommendation. Specifically, the law revises the age eligibility provisions for Chafee ETV vouchers and improves access for older former foster youth by making Chafee ETV vouchers available to eligible youth ages 14-26 without requiring that eligible youth begin using the vouchers before they turn 21.