NCAN's Streamlined FAFSA Accommodates Homeless & Foster Students

March 27, 2017

By Courtney Argenti, Graduate Policy Intern 

Students who have experienced homelessness or participated in the foster care program attend college at the lowest rates in the country. To increase their chances of success in attending and completing college, easy-to-obtain financial support is necessary. Today’s financial aid system — starting with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — must do more to support homeless or foster youth. NCAN’s Streamlined FAFSA reduces some of the barriers that the most vulnerable students face by ensuring they can be confident in their Pell Grant eligibility without having to prove their low-income, foster, or homeless status over and over again. 

The National Center for Homeless Education estimates that in 2014, there were over 300,000 homeless high school students, and over 66,000 foster children aged 16-20 years old. According to a Government Accountability Office report released last May, 95 percent of foster youth who receive federal aid and all homeless youth who get federal aid have annual incomes below $25,000, yet less than 1 percent of all undergraduate financial aid recipients are foster or homeless youth.* 

Why aren’t more foster and homeless students receiving financial aid? 

For one, these students aren’t attending college. Promises2Kids estimates that less than 10 percent of foster youth attend college, and less than 3 percent graduate. Little information is available on the percentage of homeless youth who attend and complete college — however, it is very likely that the rates are even lower than those of foster youth.  

Additionally, applying for financial aid is yet another barrier for foster and homeless youth because: (1) They often do not know how to start the process; and (2) Once initiated, they are required to verify their foster care or homelessness status multiple times — a physically and emotionally taxing task. 

To reduce some of the barriers students face when applying for financial aid, NCAN kept three goals in mind while designing the Streamlined FAFSA: 

  1. Stop asking low-income students to prove repeatedly that they are in fact low-income.
  2. Simplify the financial aid application process for all students.
  3. Maintain the integrity and universality of the FAFSA. 

To accomplish these goals, the Streamlined FAFSA ensures that applicants who receive benefits from a federal means-tested program receive the maximum Pell Grant award — without answering multiple questions about their low-income status. Additionally, low-income students who do not receive federal means-tested benefits (but earn less than $23,000 annually) can also rest assured that they will receive a maximum Pell Grant award.

The Streamlined FAFSA simplifies the application process for all students by reducing the total number of questions by more than half. At the same time, it maintains the integrity and universality of the current FAFSA by keeping the questions utilized within the federal methodology (the formula used by the federal government to determine one’s Expected Family Contribution).  

There are currently six questions (numbers 53-58 on the 2017-18 paper FAFSA) regarding homelessness or foster care that are used within the federal methodology to determine one’s dependency status:

53. At any time since you turned age 13, were both your parents deceased, were you in foster care or were you a dependent or ward of the court? 
54. As determined by a court in your state of legal residence, are you or were you an emancipated minor? 
55. Does someone other than your parent or stepparent have legal guardianship of you, as determined by a court in your state of legal residence?
56. At any time on or after July 1, 2016, did your high school or school district homeless liaison determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?  
57. At any time on or after July 1, 2016, did the director of an emergency shelter or transitional housing program funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?
58. At any time on or after July 1, 2016, did the director of a runaway or homeless youth basic center or transitional living program determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless or were self-supporting and at risk of being homeless?

NCAN’s Streamlined FAFSA keeps each of these questions, yet consolidates them into one “check all that apply” format that is easier for applicants to understand and complete. Currently, the FAFSA has a repetitive, yes-no “trigger question” about foster care that is used to determine whether additional information about other financial aid opportunities is displayed at the end of the form. The Streamlined FAFSA removes this question, and displays the information if any of the foster or homeless status questions are checked. 

These factors, combined with the overall enhanced usability and accuracy of the Streamlined FAFSA, make it easier for students to apply for financial aid.

There is, however, always work to be done. While the Streamlined FAFSA eliminates the need for foster and homeless students to repeatedly verify their status on the form, we must also ensure that these highly vulnerable students are not asked to do so after they submit their FAFSA, during the verification stage. Additionally, more readily available information about college resources directed toward foster and homeless is needed. 

*Data from 2013-14 academic year.

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