Serving as an AmeriCorps VISTA for a college prep program, I’ve learned the cookie-cutter answers to common admission dilemmas students may be facing.
“You don’t know what you want to major in? That’s fine; tons of people go into college without knowing a major. Just take a variety of courses to find out what interests you.”
“You are worried about affording college? Community college can be a great option to help lower the cost of it.”
“Are you having trouble deciding which college to go to? Visiting campuses will help you really gain a perspective and feel for where you would fit in the most.”
As the year went on, however, I realized that sometimes these cookie-cutter solutions did not work for all students. Particularly, homeless high school students.
While working with a homeless senior at the local high school this year, I quickly realized how complicated his college search process was going to become. He did not have the ability to consider as many options as his fellow classmates. When his college counselor reached out to one institution in particular on his behalf, the institution told her that they "did not want to deal with a case like his."
In 2003, the Lifetime movie Homeless to Harvard, which is based on a true story, premiered. It presents a story of how, with hard work, you will be able to conquer the barriers facing you. It’s a spin on a “rag to riches” story. Even though this movie came out 13 years ago, homelessness in education is not a long-gone phenomenon. In fact, just last week it was reported that 1 in 10 California State University students are homeless. And these are the students that are able to cross the numerous barriers to successfully enter higher education.
In working with this student throughout the year, I had a first-row view of the various barriers students who are homeless have to jump over just to be admitted, let alone survive while in college. Their options for higher education are extremely limited, and for a variety of reasons.
More often than not, they do not have a vehicle to drive themselves to and from classes and public transportation is not always reliable. Additionally, the options for higher education may be limited. In the case of my student, there are only 2 institutions of higher education within this area: a community college and a public 4-year institution. The community college does not offer housing; the public 4-year institution does. Since the student would have difficulties getting to class from an off-campus housing facility, it eliminated the option of community college. However, he also faced challenges in relying on financial aid to pay for the housing, as sometimes the refund checks do not come quickly enough to pay the first month’s rent or housing deposit.
This also assumes the student is able to complete the FAFSA in order to even be considered to receive financial aid. Typically, unless a student can claim to be independent (which is a hurdle in and of itself!), FAFSA requires parental financial information. However, if the student does not have access to their parent’s financial or tax information, this makes it extremely difficult to complete this form that serves as the gateway to financial aid.
Sometimes the college admissions staff struggles to even understand why these students may have applications that look different when compared to other students. These students may not be able to be involved in extracurricular activities because they have to work full time at a local store. Or they may have more absences because they needed to meet with a case worker or other social services officials.
Another barrier can simply be receiving an admissions decision. One school the student I worked with applied to insisted on physically mailing his admission decision. To where it was mailed, we still cannot figure that out to this day. If students do not have regular access to a mailbox, they are often unable to obtain important college paperwork.
At the end of the day, we were able to get this student into an institution. However, it was not without significant work from advocates both inside the institution and from others in the community. Without these advocates, he likely would not have been accepted into the institution or been able to navigate the financial aid and registration processes.
Fortunately, these issues are coming to light. The U.S. Government Accountability Office recently released a report stating the need for the Department of Education and college financial aid offices to work together to eliminate some of the barriers facing this population. However, it will likely be some time before we see true change.
So, I challenge you to think about this population and be mindful of them in your processes. What can you do at your institution to help minimize or eliminate these barriers for students who are homeless? And perhaps more importantly, how can you become an advocate in your community for a homeless senior who desires to make their own “rags to riches” story?
About the author: Jacqui Rogers is a young Student Affairs Professional, starting a new role as an Area Coordinator at Wesley College. Previously, she has served two terms as an AmeriCorps VISTA, first at Clarke University and Circles Initiative in Dubuque, Iowa, then with the Maryland-DC Campus Compact at St. Mary's College of Maryland. She is passionate about college access and student success. She graduated in May 2014 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and Philosophy from Millikin University. Connect with Jacqui on Twitter @jacquirogersSA.