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Barriers and Perceptions Faced by Homeless Students Seeking College Financial Aid

A scholarship application form.

Jumping Through the Hoops to Get Financial Aid for College Students Who Are Homeless: Policy Analysis of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007” (abstract). Rashida M. Crutchfield, Ruth M. Chambers, and Barbara Duffield. Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, Vol. 97, No. 3 (2016).

What it’s about: Unaccompanied homeless youth face a number of challenges in securing college financial aid, such as providing adequate documentation to verify their homelessness. Even though the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA) of 2007 expanded the federal definition of “independent student” for financial aid purposes to make college access easier for unaccompanied homeless youth, these youth still face barriers to getting this aid, Crutchfield et al. write.

To examine homeless students’ experiences applying for aid, Crutchfield and her colleagues interviewed 20 homeless community college students about the barriers they faced and how they worked with the college financial aid office. The authors also interviewed eight financial aid administrators from eight universities to understand their perspectives on working with college applicants and students experiencing homelessness.

Why read it: Before the CCRAA became law, many homeless youth were highly unlikely to attend college due to the significant financial barriers associated with attending. In addition, the authors write, research on homeless youth in higher education is limited and very little research has been conducted on the experiences of these youth once they are enrolled in college. The findings from this study may inform policies and practices that can help make college more accessible to these youth.

Biggest takeaways from the research: Applying for college financial aid can be a difficult process for most students, but for youth experiencing homelessness the process can be even more onerous, the authors write. Some specific barriers cited in the article are:

  • Having to provide documentation to verify their homeless status. Youth not using a shelter found this requirement especially difficult, because they lacked relationships with adults who could confirm their status.
  • Being asked by financial aid administrators to provide additional forms of documentation not required by law. One student, for example, said that an administrator asked her to provide her parents’ tax records, which meant getting in touch with her estranged mother. For their part, several administrators had concerns that the homelessness designation could be used inappropriately by students to receive unjustified financial assistance. Administrators also expressed concerns about needing documentation for possible audits.
  • Receiving financial aid much later than expected, such as during the week of final exams. This delay in aid meant students had to somehow pull together resources to cover their attendance for the semester (which is about four months long at the students’ community college).

The authors also found supportive aspects of the financial aid process such as:

  • Students’ positive experiences interacting with financial aid administrators. Some students spoke about how helpful the financial aid administrators were answering their questions and guiding them through the financial aid process. In one example, a student obtained temporary housing the summer before the school year started and was able to provide the necessary documentation and receive aid before the administrator became busy helping other students at the beginning of the semester.
  • Linkages between services. Financial aid administrators discussed how they and their offices linked homeless students to student support services, such as counseling. Two financial aid administrators stated that these linkages between services had not existed before passage of the CCRAA.

The authors suggest that homeless shelters and college access programs (preparatory programs designed for students who face the most difficulty enrolling in college) be authorized under the law to verify student homelessness and unaccompanied status, thereby reducing the barriers these students face in receiving aid for college. Currently under the law, runaway and homeless youth program directors or a person they designate may verify that a youth is experiencing homelessness and unaccompanied. The authors also recommend that financial aid administrators and other stakeholders in the education, human services, and social work sectors receive up-to-date training on the latest guidelines from the U.S. Department of Education, including those explaining how to proceed if a student is unable to produce specific documentation.

Additional references: Look for more articles about financial aid and homeless youth in our digital library.

View a slideshow on helping students experiencing homelessness apply for college financial aid.

Read an article about how some colleges designate single points of contact to support homeless students.

Access a “Dear Colleague” letter that can help financial aid administrators and other stakeholders with the documentation process for homeless students.

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