By Sonia Christensen
In March 2016 the Colorado Senate Education Committee passed a bill that will make it easier for youth experiencing homelessness to access higher education. The bill does so by adding those who qualify as unaccompanied youth to a list of people who are legally able to determine their own domicile, which means they can be legally declared Colorado residents and therefore qualify for in-state tuition.
“These are Colorado kids who went to Colorado schools,” said Colorado Representative Brittany Pettersen, who championed the bill last year and again, successfully, this year. “They’re facing significant obstacles and, unfortunately, are unlikely to pursue a postsecondary education and if they do, they find themselves paying four to ten times as much in some cases. What [this bill] does is give them the opportunity to prove that they are in fact Colorado residents and go to our state institutions at the same rate as other Colorado students.”
When it comes to pursuing a postsecondary degree, having to pay out-of-state tuition is only one of many obstacles that homeless youth typically face. High school graduation rates for those experiencing homelessness are much lower than the rates of students with a home and these students are typically more prone to mental illness and behavioral issues that may limit their success in school. Additionally, according to Chris Venable, education and employment supervisor at Urban Peak, a shelter for homeless youth, in many cases these students are coming from homes where education may not have been a priority. Often, these students are the first in their family to attend college.
In spite of these obstacles, those who supported the bill say they see a strong desire among homeless youth to pursue higher education. According to Colorado Representative Daneya Esgar, who co-sponsored the bill and works with youth, in Pueblo, Colorado, members of this population see a postsecondary degree as a path to a better life. “The kids I know personally, they know their situation and they want to find a way to break that cycle, they want to find a way to move forward and not only provide better for themselves—they want to provide better for their families and they know that in order to do that in this day and age, it really does take more than a high school diploma.”
In fact, according to the employment projections done by the United States Department of Labor in March 2016, those with only a high school diploma had a 5.4% unemployment rate and made an average of $678 a week, while those with a Bachelor’s degree had a 2.8% unemployment rate and made an average of $1,178 a week.
As far as the impact of the bill, Esgar sees the possibility of qualifying for in-state tuition making a big difference in motivating homeless youth to pursue higher education. “It moves the goal line a little closer for them. […] I think being able to say, no really, I live here, and I have lived here is key to help them access the education they’re looking for.”
According to Pettersen, the bill is based on a part of the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act that created the option of a third party verifier, other than a student’s parents, that would allow a student to prove residency and therefore get federal loans. “They were actually ahead of us,” said Pettersen. “We just aligned those steps at the state level so that there was a pathway forward to prove residency.”
Though the bill was based on a federal bill, it failed to pass in the Colorado Senate last year and only passed with a margin of one vote this year. Esgar attributes the passage of the bill this year to the work she and Pettersen have done to close anything that may be perceived as a loophole that could be taken advantage of.
According to Venable, “People don’t want Colorado to become a place where people think they can come and get a free ride.” In his opinion, this is the wrong way to look at the situation. In order to qualify as an unaccompanied youth a person has to prove that they are younger than 22 years old, have been in Colorado for a year, and have been verified as an unaccompanied youth by a third party verifier, such as a local educational homeless liaison.
Venable believes the bill actually creates a win-win situation—good for the students and good for the economy to which they will be more easily able to contribute. ■