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SERVE Center - The University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Stories from the Field

Supporting Unaccompanied Homeless Youth in Accessing Higher Education


For many people reading this article, the term “unaccompanied homeless youth” is an unfamiliar one. You may have no frame of reference to use in understanding what an unaccompanied homeless youth is, much less what his or her daily life, and the challenges it presents, may be like. The reality is, however, that more than 1.5 million young people in the United States will experience an episode of homelessness on their own each year, often due to severe family conflict or dysfunction in the home. Of these youth, many of them will want to attend college; yet, without the support of a parent or guardian, there will be no one to drop them off at college, stock their dorm room with cool stuff, and, even more importantly, provide needed signatures and financial support for things like tuition and books.

Two federal laws provide additional support for “unaccompanied homeless youth” - The McKinney-Vento Act and the College Cost Reduction and Access Act (CCRAA). The McKinney-Vento Act (Title X, Part C, of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) establishes the definition of homelessness used by federal education law. According to the Act, a student lacking a “fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence” and “not in the physical custody of a parent or guardian” is considered an unaccompanied homeless youth. The College Cost Reduction and Access Act establishes that unaccompanied homeless youth qualify as independent students for purposes of applying for financial aid, thereby enabling them to fill out the FAFSA without parental signature and to have their aid package calculated without consideration of parental income.

web page Homeless Youth in the United States: Recent Research Findings and Intervention Approaches

NCHE Spreads the Word 
The National Center for Homeless Education (NCHE), housed at The SERVE Center, is the U.S. Department of Education’s technical assistance center in the area of homeless education. NCHE trains state departments of education, school districts, and other educational and community agencies about the educational rights of children and youth experiencing homelessness. NCHE accomplishes this through a variety of methods, including: Hosting a toll-free helpline for answering homeless education questions; hosting free webinars each month on current and emerging homeless education topics; developing homeless education publications and resources, and more.

The Heart of the Matter
After the passage of the College Cost Reduction and Access Act, NCHE began to provide webinars and disseminate materials on the issue of college access for unaccompanied homeless youth. While most of NCHE’s work focuses on providing technical assistance to educational agencies, NCHE staff members sometimes have the privilege of working directly with students, including responding to calls and e-mails to the NCHE helpline from unaccompanied homeless youth needing assistance in being determined independent for the FAFSA. In January 2010, NCHE Program Specialist Christina Dukes had the pleasure of beginning what became a growing friendship with a young lady by the name of Sarah (name has been changed to protect identity). Sarah had been living apart from her parents, bouncing between friends’ homes and other unstable living arrangements, since graduating high school with a 3.5 cumulative GPA in June 2009.

Sarah expressed an interest in going to college, but wasn’t sure how to tackle the issue without the support and financial assistance of her parents. Christina was able to inform Sarah about her right to apply for federal financial aid as an independent student and walk her through the steps of filling of the FAFSA correctly. She also let Sarah know about the LeTendre Education Fund, a college scholarship fund for formerly and currently homeless students. Armed with glowing recommendation letters from NCHE, the Michigan Department of Education, and her JROTC Senior Instructor from high school, Sarah was awarded a LeTendre scholarship in the amount of $2,000, accepting her award at the annual conference of the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth (NAEHCY) in Houston, Texas, in November 2010. Sarah will begin attending community college in January 2011 and looks forward to a more stable future founded on a solid education.


two females

Sarah and Christina


For More Information

If you are interested in more information about supporting unaccompanied homeless youth in accessing higher education:

pdf  download NCHE’s brief,  Increasing Access to Higher Education for Unaccompanied Youth: Information for Colleges and Universities,

web page  visit NCHE’s Higher Education webpage

contact us  contact the NCHE helpline at (800) 308-2145 or homeless@serve.org.

webinar register for our free webinar, Supporting Unaccompanied Youth in Accessing Higher Education
on January 25th.