Financial Aid Tips Help Homeless and Foster Youth; Some Find Fault

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An organization of financial aid administrators has released a new tip sheet to help homeless youths and youths who’ve been in foster care to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, also known as the FAFSA.

But an advocate for homeless youths said that while the tip sheet is generally useful, some of its advice is faulty and “unhelpful.”

 “We’ve been pretty frustrated overall,” said Barbara Duffield, policy director for the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

She was referring to her organization’s efforts to counter advice such as that given in the tip sheet released Friday by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA). The tip sheet was designed to help “special populations,” such as foster children, former foster children and homeless youths, fill out a dozen or so specific questions on the FAFSA that apply to these populations. It also offers a variety of hypothetical scenarios and how to respond to the questions based on individual youths’ circumstances.

Duffield found fault with how NASFAA handled the answer to a scenario related to FAFSA Question No. 56, which asks: At any time on or after July 1, 2009, did your high school or school district homeless liaison determine that you were an unaccompanied youth who was homeless?

The scenario involves a youth who became homeless during his or her senior year in high school and wants to know if he or she is considered an independent student for the purposes of the FAFSA.

The financial aid administrators group says if such a youth does not have an official determination – but believes he or she is an unaccompanied youth who is homeless or an unaccompanied youth providing his or her own living expenses and at risk of being homeless – the youth should answer  “no” and contact the college’s financial aid office for assistance.

But Duffield said that instead of directing youths to a college’s financial aid office, youths should be directed to the homeless liaison in the school district where they attended high school.

“Contact the liaison to get the verification, not the financial aid office, which is just going to give them the runaround,” Duffield said. “That’s extremely unhelpful, and it’s one more step that the youth has to do,” she said of sending youths to the financial aid office first.

Duffield said from her experience, even the most helpful financial aid office would only refer the youths to the school district’s homeless liaison. But at worse, she said, financial aid workers may not be knowledgeable about issues concerning homeless youths and just “fumble” on the whole matter.

Duffield said if youths simply get the verification first, then they’ll be able to answer “yes” to the question instead of sending off their financial forms with inaccurate information that would need to be revised.

Asked if that would delay sending off the FAFSA, Duffield said, “Either way the youth has to get the verification. Many won’t know how to do so, and most financial aid offices will be the cause of a delay – not the liaison or the shelter.

“All parties involved – financial aid, school districts, providers – need to streamline and expedite the process,” she said.

Haley Chitty, spokesman for NASFAA, said his organization would be open to revising the document if need be, but that it needs to look into Duffield's claims first.

"We always want to improve it," Chitty said of the tip sheet. "If there's a way to make it more accurate, we can do that."

A telephone call Friday to the U.S. Department of Education was not returned.