How ESSA Can Support College and Career Readiness for Students Experiencing Homelessness

Preparation for college and careers is increasingly important as success in today’s labor market requires students having postsecondary education and training as well as employability skills. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) provides various policy levers for states to support college and career readiness for youth experiencing homelessness. More than 1.3 million students enrolled in public schools during the 2015–16 school year were homeless. Homeless students often experience a variety of educational challenges, including school mobility, difficulty enrolling in school, and inability to pay for school supplies or extracurricular programming. Research approximates that homeless students are chronically absent at a rate at least double that of the overall student population, are more likely to drop out, and graduate at lower rates than their non-homeless peers. In addition, homeless youth also encounter challenges when applying to college, such as difficulty paying for college entrance exams, difficulty completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid or lack of knowledge of the college search process.

ESSA promotes support for college and career readiness for youth experiencing homelessness by requiring states to (1) identify homeless youth; (2) remove barriers to ensure enrollment, attendance, and success; and (3) support the transition to postsecondary opportunities for these youth.

Identify Homeless Youth

Identification is the first step in evaluating student need and targeting support services. By identifying youth experiencing homelessness, states can better ensure that these youth get access to the supports and services they need to be college and career ready.

Yet, student homelessness remains an invisible issue as many students do not share that they are homeless, and many school staff are unaware of how to identify homeless students and offer the necessary support services. ESSA prioritizes the identification of homeless youth, so they can receive the education and necessary college and career readiness supports, such as credit recovery, guidance and career counseling, targeted interventions, and wraparound services. States are required to support the identification of homeless students, including reviewing and revising existing policy that could act as a barrier to homeless youth receiving necessary support. The U.S. Department of Education’s Non-Regulatory Guidance for the Education for Homeless Children and Youths Program offers various suggestions on how states and localities can identify students, such as having all students complete a housing questionnaire, ensuring that referral forms and local housing liaison contact information are readily available, and providing ongoing outreach and training to school staff regarding definitions, signs, and impact of homelessness on students. The recent amendments to the law more clearly define the responsibilities of the State Coordinator and local housing liaison, and prioritize the professional development of these staff. In addition, ESSA requires that states report disaggregated data for homeless students regarding student achievement and graduation rates in state report cards. As some states had not previously been collecting this information, a clearer picture of the achievement and outcomes of homeless youth will now be available.

Remove Barriers to Ensure Enrollment, Attendance, and Success

Given the education challenges faced by homeless youth, the changes under ESSA also require states and localities to review state laws, regulations, practices, and policies that may act as barriers to the enrollment, attendance, and success of homeless youth, and to demonstrate in their Title I plans how they intend to eliminate those barriers. The law and non-regulatory guidance stipulates that states address the following:

  • Enrollment: Eliminate barriers caused by fees, fines, absences, and missed enrollment deadlines. Enroll students immediately in their preferred school if there is a dispute over enrollment, school selection, or eligibility until a resolution has been achieved.
  • Attendance: Review school discipline policies that often disproportionally affect homeless students, particularly those students who also are youth of color, LGBTQ, English Language Learners, and students with disabilities.
  • Success: Identify and remove barriers that prevent students from earning partial or full credit for coursework completed while attending their prior school, and eliminate barriers to academic and extracurricular activities (i.e., participation in magnet schools, summer school, career and technical education, charter schools), such as lack of identification or physical examination forms and inability to pay fees. Promote school stability, such as expanding the definition of “school of origin” to include feeder schools and providing transportation to their school of origin until the end of the academic year for students who find permanent housing.

ESSA promotes the enrollment, attendance, credit accrual, participation in academic and extracurricular activities, and school stability of youth experiencing homelessness; many of these components are or affect essential elements of college and career readiness. By calling attention to these barriers, ESSA supports college and career readiness among youth experiencing homelessness.

Support the Transition to Postsecondary Opportunities

ESSA’s amendments to the McKinney-Vento Act also support students’ transition to college and career opportunities. State plans must indicate how they will ensure that homeless students receive assistance from school guidance and career counselors to prepare for college, such as counseling related to college selection, completing the application process, and financial aid options. Addressing a common barrier to college enrollment among homeless youth, local housing liaisons now have the authority to designate unaccompanied homeless youth as “independent students” for federal financial aid eligibility, and Title I funds can now be used to pay for college entrance exam fees. In addition, the non-regulatory guidance suggests considering the available supports under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act for unaccompanied homeless youth, which can provide both academic and work-based opportunities to bolster college and career readiness.

By supporting identification, removing barriers, and improving the transition to postsecondary opportunities, ESSA requires states to more comprehensively serve children and youth experiencing homelessness. These provisions and non-regulatory guidance provide states the tools and procedures to ensure that students experiencing homelessness are better prepared for both college and careers.

To learn more about ESSA and supporting college and career readiness and success for youth experiencing homelessness, check out the CCRS Center’s and American Youth Policy Forum’s webinar.

Jesse Kannam is a policy associate at the American Youth Policy Forum. 

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