Higher Education

The majority of well-paying jobs created since 2010 require some education beyond high school. Post-secondary attainment is increasingly necessary to move out of poverty and homelessness, and live a healthy, productive life. Yet youth experiencing homelessness face barriers in transitioning from secondary to post-secondary education, as well as barriers to financial aid, college retention, and college completion. The Every Student Succeeds Act and the Higher Education Act contain provisions designed to remove these barriers, and help homeless youth achieve economic independence through higher education.

We regularly add new resources to this page to help you learn about the challenges facing college students who are homeless, and how institutions of higher education, K-12 school districts, and communities can meet their needs. Stay in touch with us to learn about new resources as we produce and collect them. In the meantime, you can find answers to common questions about homelessness and higher education on our Common Questions page.

Federal Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and Youth Homelessness

This page provides comprehensive FAFSA-related resources to help youth, K-12 educators, homeless service providers, and higher education professionals understand, prepare, and fill out the FAFSA.

  • Tips for Preparing for an Independent Determination Financial Aid Interview
    Filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can be complicated and tedious. For youth experiencing homelessness on their own (unaccompanied homeless youth), this process is even more complex. This resource is designed to help unaccompanied homeless youth prepare for documented interviews with the financial aid administrator.
  • Removing Barriers to Financial Aid: Guidance on Verification Non-Filing and Form W-2
    Unaccompanied homeless youth and foster youth face challenges in obtaining tax documentation for the FAFSA. These students have had difficulty obtaining the Verification of Non-Filing (VNF) and IRS Form W-2. The new ED guidance reminds institutions of other documentation that it is acceptable to complete verification for non-tax filers and extensions filers.
  • Back to College and Training 2020: An Editable Toolkit for Assisting Youth with Experience in Foster Care or Homelessness. This toolkit from the Juvenile Law Center, SchoolHouse Connection, and Youth Villages contains the following elements:
    • Tips for Advocates and supporters of young people so advocates can provide assistance to students as they plan for the coming year.
    • Tips for Higher Education Institutions so institutions and their support staff can develop effective policies that are responsive to the needs of young people with experience in foster care and homelessness.
    • A list of general resources for students.
  • How Financial Aid Administrators Can Respond to COVID-19’s Impact on Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Seeking Financial Aid
    The COVID-19 crisis has created new barriers to financial aid for unaccompanied homeless youth. But with support from financial aid and other supportive higher education professionals, these students can continue making their dreams of a college education come true. Here are relatively simple ways that financial aid administrators (FAAs) can help to remove barriers for these vulnerable students.
  • Frequently Asked Questions from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) Removing Barriers and Increasing Access to Financial Aid for Unaccompanied Homeless Youth Webinar
    On May 5, 2020, we held a webinar on removing barriers and increasing access to financial aid for unaccompanied homeless youth in partnership with NASFAA. This document contains the most frequently asked questions presented during the webinar. Answers have been provided by SchoolHouse Connection.
  • Housing Support for Homeless and Foster Youth: Implementing AB 1228
    California has enacted a number of laws to support college students experiencing homelessness, including through housing. In 2009, state law (AB 1393) provided priority access to on-campus housing for former foster youth. In 2015, homeless youth were added to the statute, through the enactment of AB 1228. This brief examines some of the most common challenges in implementing AB 1228 and provides tips for addressing them. It was informed by interviews with eight California State University (CSU) campuses, three University of California (UC) institutions, and two California Community Colleges (CCC).
  • Tips for Homeless Higher Education Liaisons
    Many institutions of higher education are designating liaisons for students experiencing homelessness. Similar to their counterparts in K-12 education, homeless higher education liaisons support students by connecting them to available resources on and off-campus, and removing barriers to their college retention and success. This tip sheet provides basic strategies for higher education liaisons.
  • Youth Homelessness and Higher Education: An Overview
    Postsecondary attainment is increasingly necessary to move out of poverty and homelessness and live a healthy, productive life. Yet youth experiencing homelessness face barriers in transitioning from secondary to postsecondary education, as well as barriers to financial aid, college retention, and college completion. This fact sheet summarizes existing data and information on youth homelessness and higher education.
  • Tips for Helping Homeless Youth Succeed in College
    This SchoolHouse Connection series is focused on helping youth experiencing homelessness succeed in college. We highlight best practices for supporting these students from institutions across the country. Topics include:
    • Transitioning from High School to College
    • Identifying Homeless College Students
    • Housing On and Off Campus
    • Accessing Financial Aid
    • Creating and Sustaining Campus-Based Programs
    • Parenting Students
  • I Want to Go to College: Now What? A Guide for Youth Who are or Were Homeless, or Are at Risk of Experiencing Homelessness
    Published by the U. S. Department of Education, this guide provides information and resources on applying to, paying for, and succeeding in college. It was written specifically for youth who are or were ever homeless, or are at risk of experiencing homelessness.
  • The FAFSA: Four Things You Can Do to Help Homeless and Foster Youth
    Whether you work in K-12, higher education, child welfare, or homeless services, the release of the new Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is an important date. This brief provides concrete ways to help youth experiencing homelessness and youth from foster care, as well as practical resources.
  • How Emergency Aid Can Prevent Homelessness Among College Students
    Emergency aid programs offer financial resources for students who face an unexpected crisis that could prevent them from completing their academic term. These programs can be helpful for all college students, but they are especially critical for those experiencing homelessness or those who are at risk of becoming homeless. This SchoolHouse Connection brief provides examples of emergency aid programs and offers strategies for streamlining services.
  • Sample form letters to determine the independent student status of unaccompanied homeless youth for the FAFSA
    These letters may be edited as appropriate for your school district, institution of higher education, shelter, transitional living program, or street outreach program to help determine unaccompanied homeless youth.
  • 5 Guides to Help Homeless College Students in California
    The California Homeless Youth Project and SchoolHouse Connection are proud to announce a series of five practical guides to support homeless and low-income college students in California. This series provides concise overviews of the five greatest needs of students experiencing homelessness: housing supports, CalFresh application assistance, FAFSA completion, mental health services, and access to supportive services.
  • Online training to support college transition for homeless youth.
    Created by John Burton Advocates for Youth, this online training offers a series of brief lectures on topics such as creating a college-going culture, application, enrollment, and financial aid, all through the lens of special considerations for students who have experienced homelessness. The lectures are accompanied by optional quizzes and activities to support retention of the material. While the focus is on California, much of the material is applicable nationwide.
  • Pathways to Partnership: Higher Education
    This second “Pathways to Partnership” series is designed to help LEA homeless liaisons and homeless service providers to 1) gain a basic understanding of some important higher education programs, including those programs that have specific requirements on homelessness; and 2) create and sustain higher education partnerships. Connecting youth and young adults who experience homelessness with the appropriate resources will help pave a smoother transition to and through postsecondary education.
  • Early Care and Education Advocacy: A Tip Sheet for Housing and Homeless Assistance Providers
    This short document provides basic information to help housing and homeless assistance providers advocate with their families and youth for appropriate educational services, from birth through higher education. The rights and protections outlined here apply to all children and youth experiencing homelessness, as defined by the education subtitle of the McKinney-Vento Act.
  • The National Center for Homeless Education is the U.S. Department of Education’s technical assistance center on the education of children and youth experiencing homelessness. NCHE has compiled a comprehensive higher education and homelessness resources page.
  • Established in October 2004 and administered by the U.S. Department of Education’s (ED) Office of Safe and Healthy Students (OSHS), the REMS TA Center provides a hub of information, resources, training, and services in the field of school and higher ed emergency operations planning.
  • Unaccompanied homeless youth are young people experiencing homelessness who are not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian. The U.S. Department of Education’s Application and Verification Guide provides guidance to financial aid administrators, including guidance specifically about unaccompanied homeless youth (see for example, pages AVG-33, AVG133-136)
  • In 2015, the U.S. Department of Education released a Dear Colleague letter clarifying determinations for unaccompanied homeless youth for financial aid. The letter provides guidance for financial aid administrators on the definition of homelessness, how to make determinations, and documentation. It revises federal policy so that all applicants under age 24, including those who are 22 or 23 years old, and who are unaccompanied and homeless, or self-supporting and at risk of being homeless, qualify for a homeless youth determination and will be considered independent students.
  • The Every Student Succeeds Act includes policies to help homeless students transition to higher education, including requirements that school counselors provide advice to homeless youth to prepare and improve their readiness for college, and that school district homeless liaisons ensure that unaccompanied homeless youth are informed of their status as independent students for college financial aid and obtain verification for the FAFSA. Download a two-page summary of ESSA and homelessness.
  • Higher Education Legislation for Homeless and Foster Youth Introduced
    • On March 13, 2019, bipartisan, bicameral legislation was introduced to remove barriers to higher education access and success caused by homelessness and foster care. Find out what you can you do to advocate for passage of this important legislation.
  • Fixing the FAFSA for Homeless Youth
    • In December 2017, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee hearing on simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The hearing featured testimony from Elaine Williams, a SchoolHouse Connection Young Leader and remarkable advocate for homeless youth in Richmond, VA. Elaine told Senators of the numerous burdensome financial aid documentation requests she was confronted with once she got to college, and the impact of those documentation requests on her education, student debt, and mental health.
  • Congress is considering the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. This one-page document draws from the May 2016 GAO study to make legislative recommendations for improving the college access and success of homeless and foster youth.
  • State Laws Supporting College Students Experiencing Homelessness.
    • State legislatures have been actively supporting college students experiencing homelessness over the past few years. This document provides a summary of existing strong state laws. SchoolHouse Connection is working with partners in Texas on a new state law to support the thousands of Texas students striving to complete college without safe, stable housing. Please contact Patricia Julianelle to share information about other state laws assisting college students experiencing homelessness.

SchoolHouse Connection  

  • Youth experiencing homelessness face barriers in transitioning from secondary to postsecondary education, as well as barriers to financial aid, college retention, and college completion. This two-page overview summarizes existing data and information on youth homelessness and higher education. 
  • Youth Homelessness and Higher Education: An Analysis of FAFSA Data – SchoolHouse Connection released “Youth Homelessness and Higher Education: An Analysis of FAFSA Data.” The report examines a critical component of the basic needs of unaccompanied homeless youth in higher education: financial aid. It also includes recommendations for policy and practice.
  • A February 2017 SchoolHouse Connection report, This is How I’m Going to Make a Life for Myself:” An Analysis of FAFSA Data and Barriers to Financial Aid for Unaccompanied Homeless Youth, provides insights into the challenges that unaccompanied homeless youth face in accessing federal financial aid. The report is based on newly available U.S. Department of Education (ED) data from the 2015-2016 Application Cycle of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The ED data also provide state-by-state breakdowns of the numbers of applicants determined to be (or at risk of becoming) unaccompanied homeless youth. These data will help states assess progress in implementing important new ESSA provisions designed to help youth experiencing homelessness transition from high school to post-secondary education.

Government Accountability Office (GAO) 

  • In December 2018, the federal Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a new report entitled Food Insecurity: Better Information Could Help Eligible College Students Access Federal Food Assistance Benefits. Increasing evidence indicates that some college students are experiencing food insecurity, which can negatively impact their academic success. However, college students are only eligible for SNAP in certain cases. Given the substantial federal investment in higher education and the risk posed if students do not complete their degrees, GAO was asked to review food insecurity among college students. 
  • In May 2016, the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) released a report on the challenges and barriers affecting the ability of homeless and foster youth to pursue a college education. The GAO found that burdensome program rules can hinder the ability of homeless and foster youth to access federal supports; extensive documentation requests can impede access to aid for homeless youth; annual re-verification of homelessness poses barriers for unaccompanied homeless youth; and that limited academic preparation, family support, and awareness of resources make it harder for homeless and foster youth to pursue college.

Hope Center 

  • #RealCollege During the Pandemic – On June 15, 2020, the Hope Center published a report that examines the impact of COVID-19 and school closures on the security of students’ basic needs. It found that 11% of students at two-year institutions and almost 15% at four-year institutions were experiencing homelessness due to the pandemic. The vast majority of homeless students were couch-surfing or staying in other temporary accommodations. On-campus students and off-campus students experienced similar rates of food insecurity (34% vs. 31%) and homelessness during the pandemic (17% vs. 15%). The report also found significant disparities in the pandemic’s impact on the security of college students’ basic needs, with the highest rates among Indigenous, Black, and Pacific Islander/Native Hawaiian students.
  • #RealCollege2020 Research Shows 17% of College Students Experienced Homelessness in 2019 – On February 12, 2020, the Hope Center for College, Community and Justice published #RealCollege 2020, the fifth annual #RealCollege survey on basic needs insecurity among college students. In 2019, nearly 167,000 students from 171 two-year institutions and 56 four-year institutions responded to the #RealCollege survey.
  • College and University Basic Needs Insecurity: A National #RealCollege Survey Report – The #RealCollege survey is the nation’s largest annual assessment of basic needs security among college students. The survey, created by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice (Hope Center), specifically evaluates access to affordable food and housing. This report describes the results of the #RealCollege survey administered in the fall of 2018 at 123 two- and four-year institutions across the United States.
  • In April 2018, Wisconsin HOPE Lab published “Still Hungry and Homeless in College“, which summarizes the findings of a national survey that included 66 colleges and universities, including 31 community colleges and 35 4-year colleges and universities from 20 states and Washington, D.C. The survey found that 12% of community college students and 9% of university students experienced homelessness over the last year.
  • In March 2017, Wisconsin HOPE Lab released the results of a national study on hunger and homelessness among community college students. The study, Hungry and Homeless in College: Results of a Study of Basic Needs Insecurity in Higher Education, found that one-third of community college students are hungry and 14 percent are homeless.

Young Invincibles

  • In November 2019, Young Invincibles published a report on young adults experiencing homelessness in New York City and their ability to enter and complete a postsecondary education. The report examines barriers and provides recommendations to increase college access and success.

California State University  

  • Published in August 2019, CSU’s Study of Student Service Access and Basic Needs is Phase 3 of the most comprehensive mixed-methods study of university students’ unmet basic needs and the relationship to student success ever completed within a 4-year higher education system.
  • Published in February 2018, CSU’s Study of Student Basic Needs is Phase 2 of the most comprehensive mixed-methods study of university students’ unmet basic needs and the relationship to student success ever completed within a 4-year higher education system.

California Homeless Youth Project 

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