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March 1, 2016
Vol. 73
No. 6

Homeless and College-Bound

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When Dominique Vaughn became homeless during her senior year of high school, she did not think attending college would be possible. With mounting family conflict and loss of employment in her one-parent household, Dominque went from being a normal high school student to one who had to work two jobs. She bounced around nine different households in a span of six months. But she decided to speak up and ask her high school counselor to help her make a plan to attend college.
Soon after, Dominique had a "dream team" of professionals ready to support her aspirations, including her school counselor, her district's McKinney-Vento liaison, her favorite teacher, staff from a community-based organization, and a university's Designated Point of Contact for homeless and foster youth. Because of their support, Dominique is now a freshman at Kennesaw State University.

Support for Homeless Youth

There are approximately 1.36 million homeless students just like Dominque in U.S. public schools. Students become homeless for a variety of reasons. Some contend with histories of abuse, neglect, loss of parental employment, or parental death or incarceration. Others age out of foster care or are left homeless by foreclosure or natural disasters.
Teachers, school counselors, and peers often hear from homeless students, "College is not for me. Other kids go to college. I won't be going. We're poor." Yet in the 2013–14 school year, some 58,000 of the nation's college students self-identified as homeless when applying for financial aid. And this number is undoubtedly low. It only counts students who are both homeless and unaccompanied (meaning they do not reside with a legal guardian or parent). It does not include youth living with homeless parents in shelters, cars, motels, or doubled- or tripled-up with friends and family.

Life as a Homeless College Student

When homeless students make it to college, they face significant challenges. Most are firmly convinced that education is the way out of poverty, but many are embarrassed to discuss their personal situations. They may find themselves in collegiate environments with students who have no personal experiences with poverty. They may encounter other students whose parents made it easy for them to attend college and, in doing so, left them feeling entitled.
In contrast, life is anything but easy for homeless students. They battle daily to meet even basic needs. Food, clothing, textbooks, computer supplies—and, for those not living in campus housing, even a place to sleep—do not come easily. On top of these challenges, homeless students fight to stay focused, awake, and motivated, as well as engaged in academics. They hope for a better future while growing weary of the struggle. They attend classes, scrape together the means to purchase books and food, create time to study in between numerous jobs, sleep in their cars or with friends, and make attendance and graduation a hard-fought and single-minded focus.
What are the steps to accomplishing this odds-defying feat, and how can high school educators equip students for success?

1. Identify them.

The McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act (1987) and subsequent reauthorizations mandate ongoing identification of students in homeless situations. The Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) also promotes the identification of and support for homeless students. Each school district must name a homeless liaison who is trained by a state coordinator. This mandate has facilitated a growing awareness of homeless students' needs and the necessary steps to ensure they progress to high school graduation and beyond.
Identification of homeless students occurs in several ways. Enrollment documents might inquire about a student's housing situation, a teacher or principal may know the signs of homelessness, or other students may speak up when one of their friends falls on difficult times.
During the identification process, schools must determine which students are "couch surfing" (living without a parent or legal guardian) during their senior year. That information is crucial because the College Cost Reduction Act of 2007 enables students who have been officially classified by their districts as homeless to apply as "independent students" on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). As a result, parents' income is not considered, and substantially more aid is often available.
Counselors should provide a verification letter of this independent status to the financial aid officer at the student's targeted college; they can also give students a saved copy on a flash drive for safekeeping. After a student has graduated from high school, it is very challenging for a financial aid officer to verify independent status, so proactive identification is key.

2. Help them complete the FAFSA.

High school counselors play a fundamental role in communicating that homeless students are indeed able to enroll in, afford, and succeed in college. Many counselors hold a "FAFSA Week" during which trained individuals help students fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. (Resources for counselors are available.)
College coaches can be equally effective. For instance, the Leander ISD Educational Excellence Foundation in Leander, Texas, funds college coaches to help students with the enrollment process. The FAFSA can be quite intimidating, so coaches lead students step-by-step through the application. In Leander, one such coach was aware of the McKinney-Vento law and learned that one of her students, "Ollie," was no longer living at home. You can imagine that the result of Ollie's FAFSA was more generous than it would have been if she had not applied as an independent student.
After students complete the FAFSA, they are awarded federal aid in the form of grants or loans. Unfortunately, many homeless youth may need to use student loans to pay for college, so they should work with a financial aid administrator to borrow only what they need. Counselors should also encourage students to apply for scholarships to reduce loan debt and to complete the FAFSA early to maximize their chances of receiving grants.

3. Seek out fee waivers.

Another key to successfully moving homeless students into higher education is helping them obtain waivers for admission and test fees. The National Association for College Admissions Counselors (NACAC) provides admission fee waivers to students whose families have difficulty paying the fees. Students must obtain the NACAC waiver from their counselor. Some universities will waive tuition and housing deposits as well, or they will postpone these fees until students receive their aid.
Taking the SAT or ACT can be cost prohibitive to homeless students, too. The College Board offers SAT fee waivers, also distributed by high school counselors, to students whose families are not able to afford testing fees. The ACT waives fees for students from disadvantaged backgrounds as well.

4. Choose wisely.

Counselors can increase the chances of higher-education success by identifying appropriate college choices for homeless students. These institutions might combine campus support (such as assistance with financial aid and mentoring) and community support services (such as SNAP food benefits and state health insurance programs).
Dominque was drawn to Kennesaw State University because of the resources available to homeless students. Specifically, the Campus Awareness Resource and Empowerment (CARE) Center at the university provides counseling and case management to homeless and foster students. It also offers a food and clothing bank, housing during breaks, and scholarships.

5. Find a SPOC.

Many states have started to build statewide networks to support college-bound homeless youth. Such initiatives have been established in 14 states and are underway in three others.
One goal of the statewide networks is to establish a Single Point of Contact (SPOC) on each college campus. A SPOC is a college administrator who helps homeless students navigate the higher-education labyrinth. High school counselors who work in states with existing networks can look at their state's homeless education department website to find Single Point of Contact listings. Counselors should help students set up on-campus appointments with SPOCs so they can learn about resources offered to homeless youth. If a SPOC is not available on a campus, students should contact university officials, such as those in the financial aid and counseling offices, to gather similar information.

Paving the Route

For the tens of thousands of homeless college students, becoming more visible and advocating for themselves can only help. "It's not something that we can necessarily see," Courtney Smith, a formerly homeless college student at Eastern Michigan University, told USA Today. "You could be sitting in class and nobody could know of your situation. … It's not a visible population because it's not the face of homelessness that we think about."
Yet, as a nation, we are starting to rethink what homelessness looks like. The homeless go to elementary, middle, and high schools; they attend colleges. As a nation, we must consider what becomes of the 1.36 million homeless students in public schools and the futures they may pursue after graduation. There is a route from couch-surfing to college. It is paved with support from those who believe that dreams of a richer and more stable future can come true for any child.
End Notes

1 United States Department of Education. (2015). Total number of homeless students enrolled in LEAs with or without McKinney-Vento subgrants—total 2013–2014. Retrieved from Ed Data Express.

2 Homeless students grow anxious as semester comes to a close. USA Today. Retrieved from http://college.usatoday.com/2014/04/24/homeless-students-anxious-about-summer

Vicky Schreiber Dill has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

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