Law Fosters Higher Ed Opportunities

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Buried in a 431-page reauthorization measure for higher education are a few small but potentially important provisions that should boost supportive services “including mentoring and tutoring” to help foster care youth reach and complete postsecondary school.

Much of the attention around the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 (H.R. 4137), signed into law by President Bush in mid-August, has focused on its prominent elements dealing with student aid and college affordability.

But John Emerson, senior manager of education with Seattle-based Casey Family Programs, said several lesser-known parts of the law could provide better access to federal higher education services for foster children and those who have aged out of foster care.

For instance, in reauthorizing the Department of Education's TRIO programs – which ease the pathway to higher education for low-income, first-generation and disabled students – lawmakers added language requiring that grantees serve foster youth.

“The very good news,” Emerson said, “is this is the first time that I'm aware of that foster care youth are specifically mentioned in [the Higher Education Act] – ever.”

TRIO is funded at $828.2 million this year. Under the new language, applicants must “identify and make available services,” such as mentoring, tutoring and other programs, to foster youth, to those who left foster care after age 13 and to homeless children.

About 2,855 TRIO grantees operate programs, collectively serving 850,000 low-income youth, said Kimberly A. Jones, congressional affairs director for the Council for Opportunity in Education, which is the national TRIO membership organization.

Language pertaining to foster youth was added to four of seven TRIO program areas: Talent Search, Upward Bound, Student Support Services and Educational Opportunity Centers. An eighth TRIO program deals with professional development.

Statistics on how many foster care-involved youth enroll in or complete college and trade school are sparse, but enrollment rates reported by government agencies, researchers and private groups range from a low of 7 percent to a high of 20 percent, with completion rates as low as 1 percent. (See “Foster Kids Waive at College,” April 2007.)

Emerson conceded that “much, much work is yet to be done” before legions of foster youth start entering and completing postsecondary education.

But TRIO precollegiate and collegiate services “are very helpful to these students,” Emerson said. He said the next step is making sure the field can “establish working relationships with the foster care community and schools and child welfare community to bring students into their programs.

Jones said the opportunity council has been conducting outreach to members so they can incorporate the law's changes as they recruit students for upcoming programs.

“The degree to which these [legislative provisions] are known and addressed in a proactive way is very important,” Emerson said.

The Higher Education Opportunity Act affects disadvantaged youth in other ways by:

• Amending the Fund for Improvement in Postsecondary Education program, which provides a little more than $2 million annually for higher education innovations, to create a new section to support demonstrations for foster care or homeless youth.

• Streamlining federal student aid processes for low-income families.

• Allowing nontraditional and low-income students to receive Pell Grants year-round.

• Strengthening the $300 million federal Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs initiative so that it can better serve low-income and first-generation students.

Download the legislation online at