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Putting College Within the Reach of Homeless Youth

By Debbie A. Powell, Acting Associate Commissioner for the Family and Youth Services Bureau

Jessica McCormick never doubted she was going to college.

Not when she ran away from a violent home the summer before her senior year. Not when she bounced among the houses of friends and extended family. Not when, more than once, she wound up living on the streets of her hometown, Grand Rapids, MI, for several weeks.

Photo of Jessica McCormickDespite everything, Jessica got good grades, worked in her high school’s main office, sent off her college application and graduated. In June 2010, she received an acceptance letter from Aquinas College, a liberal arts school in Grand Rapids. And she realized she couldn’t afford to go.

On average, higher education boosts people’s lifetime earnings compared to having a high school-level diploma or less. For unaccompanied youth like Jessica, who have no fixed residence or family support, college represents a first step toward economic independence, a meaningful career and overall self-sufficiency. 

Removing Obstacles
But unaccompanied young people face many hurdles to going to college. Those obstacles include not having the money for deposits and fees, lack of knowledge about their rights and the benefits they may be eligible for, daunting paperwork, and lack of support as they attempt to navigate the higher education system on their own. Many youth may not know that the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 expanded the definition of “independent students” eligible to apply for financial aid without a parent or guardian’s approval or financial records. Now that category includes unaccompanied homeless youth and foster youth.

A few states, like Colorado and North Carolina, have implemented statewide partnerships to smooth the way for homeless and foster youth in higher education. But when such partnerships don’t exist, youth-serving organizations like those funded by the Family and Youth Services Bureau’s Runaway and Homeless Youth Programs play an important role.

FYSB grantees are tasked with supporting young people’s educational goals and with coordinating with local education liaisons who ensure that they are able to attend public school. To smooth the road to higher education, some grantees identify the nearby colleges their youth are most interested in attending, then work with each institution’s financial aid, admissions and student affairs offices to streamline the process for admitting and supporting homeless students.

For example, colleges may not know that they can use federal student support services funds to pay for temporary housing for unaccompanied youth during breaks. In many cases, youth workers can talk to the student affairs office and the housing office to work something out on a young person’s behalf.

A Better Future
In Jessica’s case, her social workers at Arbor Circle, a Grand Rapids Runaway and Homeless Youth Program grantee, jumped in to help. They worked with the college’s administrators, got Jessica financial aid, and arranged for her to start living on campus even before the semester started.

Now a junior majoring in sociology and community leadership, Jessica has started an organization called Hope House, which will support unaccompanied youth at her college by offering life-skills training, tutoring, mentoring, and other services and by acting as a liaison to the college’s administration.

In Jessica’s ideal world—and in FYSB’s—every homeless youth would have the support not only to go to college, but also to graduate and build themselves a better future.

To learn more about college access for homeless youth, visit the websites of the Department of Education’s National Center for Homeless Education and the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Debbie Powell is the Acting Associate Commissioner of the Family and Youth Services Bureau, where she advises the Commissioner of ACYF on family and youth issues. Before coming to FYSB, Powell held senior leadership positions for more than 20 years in grants management and the management of federal programs that serve low-income families.

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