Massachusetts congresswoman looks to make college more accessible and affordable for foster, homeless youths

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Pointing to barriers that can prevent youth who are homeless or in the foster care system from pursuing a higher education, a Massachusetts congresswoman introduced legislation this week that looks to crack down on such challenges and help recruit these students for college.

Backed by lawmakers from both parties and congressional chambers, U.S. Rep. Katherine Clark’s, D-Melrose, so-called Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act of 2017 would require the U.S. Department of Education to help resolve questions about a homeless or foster youth’s independence and ensure federal programs identify, recruit and prepare these students for college.

It would further call on colleges and universities to streamline eligibility determinations for financial aid, encourage states to grant in-state tuition for homeless and foster students who often struggle to prove their residency status, and to reduce barriers to college attendance due to a lack of financial support.

Noting that more than 1.3 million students are homeless and nearly 428,000 are in foster care across the United States, Clark said the legislation is a “common sense way Congress can help students who face unique and significant challenges chart their path to success.”

Specifically, the bill looks to remove barriers and enhance college accessibility by: easing the verification and determination process for foster youth and individuals who are unaccompanied, self-supporting and at risk of being homeless; ending the requirement that unaccompanied students must have their status redetermined every year; and retaining important documentation that often gets lost for these individuals.

It would also clarify that individuals under age 24 who are found to be unaccompanied or homeless are considered independent students and can get full financial aid needed, as well as bar foster care support and services from being counted as “income” for purposes of calculating financial aid.

The legislation further looks to support homeless and foster youth students’ college retention and completion by having higher education institutions develop plans to assist these individuals in accessing campus housing resources during and between academic terms; designate a single point of contact to assist these students in accessing services and support; and collaborate with child welfare agencies, homeless service providers and others to conduct outreach and recruit these individuals.

Clark, who said the proposal comes out of work she did at the state-level, argued that the changes are needed to help homeless and foster youth have a “fair shot” at successful futures.

“By removing some of these barriers, I think we’re going to be able to really identify this population, get a handle on the numbers and the services that they need to continue to improve how we can help them, and the best programs we can put in place to make sure that they’ve got a fair shot at a bright future,” she said in an interview.

Clark noted that an estimated 13,000 K-12 public school students in Massachusetts could be impacted by the proposed legislation.

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U.S. Reps. Bobby Scott, D-Virginia; Susan Davis, D-California; and Don Young, R-Alaska, have signed as co-sponsors of Clark’s measure, which has been referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce for further consideration.

U.S. Sens. Patty Murray, D-Washington; and Rob Portman, R-Ohio, have also backed the bill, according to Clark’s office.

The congresswoman said she’s hopeful that lawmakers will act on the measure, contending that the challenges facing these youth is not partisan.

“These kids are not political, they are kids that have ended up homeless or in a foster program through no fault of their own. We want to make sure that we are offering a chance at a future with a good job for them, and to all of our students,” she said. “I think this is an area where, however divided a Congress we may be, we can come together around these students and hopefulyl build a process and programs that can really support their success.”

SOURCEmasslive.com
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