Hands-On Help for Higher Ed

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Anthon Smith, executive director of Seattle Education Access, and other experts shared the following tips for service providers and programs wanting to help young people they serve achieve better post-secondary outcomes:

For young people in high school and/or applying to higher education programs:

• When students are homeless or in foster care, work with the homeless shelter’s education advocate or school guidance counselor to make arrangements for students to remain in their home schools, said Eileen McCaffrey, executive director of Foster Care to Success, a nonprofit that provides grants, mentoring and other supports to foster youth enrolled in higher education. Frequent school changes can undermine academic achievement, but K-12 students have certain rights under the McKinney-Vento Act to stay in their same schools despite homelessness or changes in foster care placement.

• Students should be encouraged to participate in extracurricular activities and other school-based programs, even if they are not sure how long they will stay in a school. Anything that allows a student to feel rooted in a school and allows adults to invest in that young person can encourage him or her to share challenges and ultimately get the help he or she needs, according to McCaffrey. She also said that, whenever possible, young people should be involved with the federally funded Upward Bound and/or Talent Search programs (see “Programs” sidebar on Page 24).

• Make sure students know about and apply for fee waivers, advised Christina Dukes, program specialist with the National Center for Homeless Education and author of a toolkit on helping homeless students succeed in college (see sidebar on Page 24). Advanced placements tests, college entrance exams and college applications all involve fees that can quickly add up, but fee waivers are available for students who meet certain requirements. 

Similarly, financial aid application requirements to provide parental information, a challenge for unaccompanied homeless and other students, can also be waived under certain circumstances (see toolkit listed in “Essential Resources” sidebar for more information on fee waivers and on applying for financial aid as an unaccompanied homeless student, as this is an area with which even college financial aid advisors may be less familiar, said Dukes).

• Educate young people about all of their post-secondary options, not just four-year colleges, recommended McCaffrey. Two-year degrees, vocational certificates and other types of diplomas can all lead to fulfilling careers if they match a young person’s aptitudes and abilities. Transferring from a two-year program to a four-year program can be difficult, however, so if a student’s ultimate goal is a four-year degree, said Dukes, she may be best served by starting out in a four-year program where the level of student engagement is often higher.  

• “Money is not the obstacle people think it is,” said McCaffrey. But taking on too much in loans is a mistake McCaffrey warned. “Scholarships really want to fund kids who’ve had disadvantaged backgrounds,” McCaffrey said, so adults should help students find and apply for these programs. (The guides listed in the sidebar “Essential Resources” provide specifics on how to find grants and scholarships.)  Young people also need to learn money-management skills and can use other supports, such as low-income housing programs and extended foster care (where available) to reduce the amount they need to borrow, said McCaffrey.  

For young people already enrolled in a post-secondary program:

• Encourage college students to meet and check in with their academic advisor regularly, said Dukes. This person’s job is to help young people navigate course and major requirements, connect them to tutoring if necessary, and help them find peer study groups and relevant workshops on campus.

• Make sure students know about all of the other individuals whose job it is to help them address barriers that arise — this can include the financial aid administrators, mental health clinicians available through the student services office, or staff in other offices, such as housing or student health.

-Lisa Pilnik