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Homelessness in high school bodes ill for college, study finds

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Students on the move
Students moved through the front hallway at John F. Kennedy Senior High School in Bloomington, Minn.
Caroline Yang for MPR News 2015

"You are essentially moving the student to a foreign country and they have to figure everything out again." That's how report author Meredith Fergus described the experience of homelessness for Minnesota high school students.

"It's such a profound change for them — it causes so many issues in terms of transportation, study time, which adults are around you, how you get to places and what your schedule is like — that it pretty much is disrupting your educational pathway," Fergus said.

The study Fergus worked on tracked thousands of students who experienced housing instability while in grades 9-12. She and her colleagues found that high school students who experienced housing insecurity were significantly less likely to graduate from high school. They were also less likely to participate in advanced placement or college-credit classes. And they tended to get lower scores on tests like the ACT.

After high school, these same students were less likely to enroll in college. Those who did enroll were less likely to graduate.

"Housing insecurity or any sort of housing disruption while in high school actually disrupts the student's college pathway profoundly," Fergus said.

The report also found that students of color are disproportionately affected by housing insecurity. Almost 70 percent of those who experience housing insecurity in high school are students of color.

Fergus said some aspects of government programs meant to help lower-income students enroll in college actually disadvantage some of the neediest students.

"The one policy that I think we need to think through is that when a student is identified as housing insecure while in high school, they are exempt from reporting parental information," Fergus said. "However, by making them exempt, it means they're independent students. And overall, independent students actually receive less financial aid if they're working than dependent students."