September 01, 2016

Removing Barriers to Higher Education for Youth in Foster Care

Hannah Leibson

The views expressed herein have not been approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association, and accordingly, should not be construed as representing the policy of the American Bar Association.

Every March, wide-eyed high school juniors road trip across the country with their families to tour colleges and universities. For these students, college is the next step in their futures. The question is not “Will I attend college, but where?” For an estimated 32,000 homeless youth,1 and 22,000 foster youth aging out of the system every year, struggling to support themselves, college is often a distant idea. 

Due to increased school mobility, histories of trauma and abuse, and lack of adequate supports and services to succeed in school, many of these youth lack the academic foundation to apply and be admitted to a two- or four-year college or university. For others, attaining the required documentation to verify their independent status to receive federal funding is difficult. These youth are united, however, in the struggle to attain accessible resources and information to make college a viable option. 

The U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) report, “Actions Needed to Improve Access to Federal Financial Assistance for Foster and Homeless Youth,” analyses barriers foster and homeless youth face to pursuing higher education. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) administers programs such as Chafee ETV Vouchers, the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program for foster youth, and the Runaway and Homeless Youth/Transitional Grant Program for homeless youth. These programs help youth to access and participate in college. Additionally, The Department of Education offers a Federal Pell Grant Program, and the William D. Ford Federal Direct Loan Program to low income, and financially independent students. While these programs offer valuable support, they do not address all the needs of foster and homeless youth. 

Since 2013, the Higher Education Act (HEA) has been up for reauthorization. Currently a bill—the Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act, S. 2267/H.R. 4043—has been introduced to focus on how reauthorization of HEA can address the needs of youth in foster care and youth experiencing homelessness.  This Act includes 15 provisions that address many barriers identified in the GAO report. The Act also provides added resources for foster and homeless youth wishing to pursue a higher education degree or certificate. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA) currently leads the Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions that seeks to include this Act in the reauthorization of HEA. This article summarizes the GAO report’s findings and how the Act’s provisions seek to address many of the education barriers facing students in foster care. 

GAO Findings: Barriers to Education

The GAO’s findings were based on information from three federal databases and interviews with foster and homeless youth in California, Colorado, Michigan, and Virginia. The findings answer three questions: 

(1) What is known about college enrollment and completion for youth who have been in foster care or who are homeless?

The first question examines the rate at which foster and homeless youth are pursuing degrees and graduating from colleges across the country. According to the most recent study by the Department of Education (2011), only 40% of foster youth participating in the study completed at least one year of college, compared to 68% of youth in the general population. The data also reveals most foster youth who begin college do not graduate. Specifically, 72% of foster youth enrolled in a two- or four-year college do not receive their degree or certificate within six years. Homeless youth make up only 1% of undergraduates receiving federal financial aid each year, suggesting few homeless youth are attending college. Their graduation rates remain inconclusive because of a lack of data. Data available suggests both students experiencing homeless and those in foster care are attending and graduating from college at significantly lower rates than students from the general population. 

(2) How do challenges identified by researchers affect the ability of foster and homeless youth to pursue college?

The second question looks at barriers foster and homeless youth face to college entrance and success. Limited academic preparation, lack of family support, and lack of accessibility emerge as the three largest academic barriers for these youth. 

  • Limited academic preparation. Sixty-five percent of foster youth interviewed by the GAO reported transferring schools seven or more times since elementary school. Increased school mobility impacts a child’s well-being and leads to lower academic achievement and high school graduation rates overall.2 For youth who surmount this barrier and enroll in college, many are forced to enroll in remedial courses that do not count towards their graduation requirements (due to lack of adequate preparatory courses in high school). The GAO report cites that students forced to take remedial courses are less likely to graduate within eight years of starting school.

  • Lack of family support can also prevent foster and homeless youth from thinking about college as a realistic option after high school. Based on interviews with federal and state officials, without adequate family support and mentorship, many foster and homeless youth who wish to attend college lack the information they need to start researching options and navigating the admission process.

  • Accessibility. In addition to limited financial resources, these youth often lack access to the free resources that do exist. Currently, the McKinney-Vento Education for Homeless Children and Youth Program requires all school districts to designate a homeless liaison to “help homeless youth succeed in school.” These liaisons may also legally verify the unaccompanied youth status of these individuals. Liaisons, however, are hesitant to make determinations, and struggle to adequately discuss students’ status without crossing personal barriers. Acquiring information from a student about their reasons for homelessness is often sensitive and going about the process the wrong way can lead to a youth giving up on attending college. The GAO suggests a centralized federal online webpage where foster and homeless youth can learn about their rights, available funding, and resources available to them. Currently, no such ‘one-stop shop’ exists. 

(3) To what extent do program barriers exist that could hinder these youth from obtaining federal financial assistance to college?

For homeless youth in particular, the extensive documentation required to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) can prevent these youth from completing the financial aid process on time. In order for financial aid administrators to verify their status and for FAFSA to be considered complete, many of these youth must provide three pieces of documentation that prove their independent living situation. The stigma of homelessness, discomfort in their biological home, and lack of time make attaining this documentation difficult. If a student fails to provide the required documentation, financial aid administrators are authorized to make an independent determination themselves. 

As cited above, many are hesitant to do so based on fear of noncompliance with agency standards, and lack of experience working with these youth. Once a homeless youth’s status is verified, the process does not end. Each year that a student receives federal funding, she is required to have her status re-verified by a McKinney-Vento homeless liaison, a program director cited in the FAFSA, or a financial aid administrator. Once a student has completed a year of college, attaining this documentation again is difficult and creates a burden for these youth. 

Additionally, age eligibility rules for Chafee ETV vouchers available to foster youth creates a barrier for students over age 21 seeking aid. The Congressional Research committee cites that many foster youth start college later than traditional students, but this age has not been adjusted to account for this trend. According to most recent data from the HHS, 16 states returned more than $1.2 million in unused Chafee ETV vouchers. 

How the Proposed Higher Education Act Amendments Address Education Barriers

The amendments to the Higher Education Act contain 15 provisions that address many barriers identified in the GAO report. The provisions aim to make college more accessible and affordable for foster and homeless youth. 

  • Clarification of Independent Student Status for Foster and Homeless Youth. The Act clarifies that youth under age 24 who are legally deemed homeless are considered independent students. The need for this provision comes from the current language in FAFSA that defines “youth” as being 21 years old, younger, or currently enrolled in high school.
        Thus, independent foster and homeless youth aged 22 and 23 who need federal funding to attend college face additional barriers to verify their status. These students are not considered youth, or considered independent. By lowering the age that foster and homeless youth may be considered “independent,” students aged 22 and 23 will be able to gain the equivalent federal financial aid they would have received if they had waited until age 24. 
  • Annual Status Re-certifications Eliminated. The Act eliminates the requirement for homeless youths’ status to be re-determined every year. As the data from the GAO report highlights, very few homeless youths’ statuses change during their college careers, but attaining annual re-certification poses a burden for these students whose time should be spent on their courses. 
  • Expanded Authority to Make Status Determinations. The Act simplifies the process for attaining youth status verification by adding TRIO, GEAR-UP, and additional publicly and privately funded homeless shelters to the list of entities that can determine a youth’s independent status. Expanding who can make an independent status determination makes it easier for youth to find someone authorized to assist them, and decreases the burden on financial aid administrators alone to make determinations. 
  • Financial Aid Administrators Authorized to Make Status Determinations. The Act simplifies the application process for federal student aid by requiring financial aid administrators to determine if a homeless youth is independent, if no other authority is willing to make a determination. This requirement removes the hesitation that many administrators feel in making a determination by normalizing this role. If foster and homeless youth are still denied independent student status with the preceding provisions, the bill requires that a student loan public advocate be brought in to resolve disputes. It also clarifies that “foster care children and youth” includes youth who were in foster care at age 13 or older, even if they currently are in a permanent living situation, such as adoption, or guardianship. 
  • Improved Awareness of Federal Financial Aid Policies. The Act requires higher education institutions to publicly share federal financial aid policies so foster and homeless youth know their full rights and available resources. Distribution will include posted notices of financial aid policies near educational institutions. Since foster and homeless youth often have fewer mentors and at-home support, they are unlikely to learn about available opportunities if they are not easily accessible. This requirement improves awareness of federal financial aid and helps reduce discrimination based on foster youths’ status. The bill also requires that admissions applications allow youth to identify their status so information about financial aid and student support services can be administered appropriately. 

To address low graduation and retention rates for foster and homeless youth who are able to attend college, the following six provisions provide these youth financial and emotional support to navigate campus once they arrive. 

  • Affording Higher Education. Three of the Act’s provisions make higher education more affordable for foster and homeless youth. The bill gives foster and homeless youth access to in-state tuition at the public university of their choice. As the GAO highlighted, 68% of foster youth have moved schools seven or more times. This provision gives them the opportunity to select the university in the area where they feel the most at home. Under the bill, these youth will also receive priorities at their respective universities for federal work-study programs. 
  • Housing Support. A provision strengthens emotional support for homeless and foster youth. The GAO report highlights that during school breaks, foster and homeless youth often have nowhere to go, and spend time looking for affordable housing, taking away from their education. The bill includes a plan to help provide foster and homeless youth access to housing. Many foster and homeless youth have nowhere to go in between academic terms, so this provision asks campus leaders and community members to help find appropriate housing between academic terms for these youth. 
  • Designated Points of Contact (POC). Every university must designate a POC for homeless and foster youth. Currently, every school district is required to designate a liaison for homeless youth, and new provisions in ESSA create a mechanism for POCs to be identified for foster youth, but no such requirement exists at the college level. This provision creates a single POC for foster and homeless youth once they get to their respective universities that can make referrals to student counselling, health services, and other programs. Single POCs give these youth the assistance they need to navigate and find resources throughout their college careers. 
  • Improved Outreach. A provision requires TRIO and GEAR-UP programs to identify, conduct outreach to, and recruit homeless and foster youth in collaboration with school district homeless liaisons, service providers, and child welfare agencies. Additionally, these programs must document their outreach to identify best practices and assess the number of homeless and foster youth served. The GAO found that many youth are not aware of available financial resources; this provision increases the level of information given to youth.
        To further improve accessibility, the law requires that TRIO, GEAR-UP, Upward Bound, Talent Search, Student Support Services, and Education Opportunity Centers remove barriers to participation that bar foster and homeless youth from immediate accessibility and enrollment in these programs. 

The HEA has been amended eight times since 1965, with the most recent reauthorization in 2008, through the Higher Education Opportunity. In 2013, the HEA expired and has been at a stand-still. Senator Patty Murray currently leads the bipartisan coalition to reauthorize the full bill with added amendments, but whether or not the Senate will hear the bill remains unknown. Its passage holds promise for addressing many education barriers foster and homeless youth now face. 


Hannah Leibson is a junior at the University of Southern California. She is pursuing a BA in Political Science, with a double minor in Playwriting and Managing Human Relations. Upon graduation from USC, she plans to pursue a JD. 



The Legal Center for Foster Care and Education at the ABA Center on Children and the Law has expertise on the educational needs of foster youth in care. The Legal Center’s Blueprint for Change: Education Success for Children in Foster Care specifies 8 goals and 56 corresponding benchmarks to aid and direct case advocacy and system reform. Goal 8: Youth Have Support To Enter Into and Complete Post-Secondary Education, specifically addresses the needs discussed in this article. 



1. The U.S. Department of Education defines homeless youth as youth who “lack a fixed, regular, and nighttime residence” or an “individual who has a primary nighttime residence that is a) a supervised or publically operated shelter designed to provide temporary living accommodations; b) an institution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized including welfare hotels, congregate shelters, and transitional housing for the mentally ill; or c) a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.” This definition includes both youth who are unaccompanied by families and those who are homeless with their families.

2. The U.S. Departments of Education and Health and Human Services issued the first guidance on the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act in June 2016. The Guidance explains how state and local education and child welfare agencies must collaborate to implement the ESSA’s provisions to ensure school stability, prompt school enrollment, and school success for children in foster care.