A decade ago, Roy Block, president of the Texas Foster Families Association, rarely heard about former foster youths going to college. Oh, how things have changed: In the 2004-05 academic year, the state waived $2.4 million in tuition and fees to help 1,323 current and former foster youths attended college, according to the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services.
The waivers for state-supported vocational schools, colleges and universities were a revolutionary idea when they were adopted in 1993. But such efforts have become more mainstream, as more than half of the states have programs to encourage post-secondary education among foster children, said Robin Nixon, executive director of the National Foster Care Coalition.
|Tuition Waivers: States with programs for foster youth.
Source: National Resource Center for Youth Services
“It’s a trend in investing in a population that hasn’t received much investment in terms of higher education,” she said.
One reason for the change: the creation in 2003 of the federal Chafee Education and Training Voucher (ETV) program, providing up to $5,000 a year to foster youth for post-secondary education and training. That provided a “stimulus” for the states, said John Emerson, senior manager of education at the Seattle-based Casey Family Programs.
“One of the most important things that has happened because of ETVs,” Emerson said, “has been an increased conversation at the state levels … about the underrepresentation of young people from foster care in college.”
Few statistics exist on the enrollment or completion rates for current and former foster youth in college and trade schools. Enrollment rates reported by government agencies, researchers and private groups range from 7 percent to 20 percent, with completion rates as low as 1 percent.
A 2005 report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy estimated that less than 20 percent of college-eligible foster youth go on to post-secondary education, compared with 60 percent of youth not in foster care.
The report, “Higher Education Opportunities for Foster Youth,” says that at any given time, some 300,000 youth are coming out of foster care between the ages of 18 and 25, and roughly half are “college-qualified.” Of this group, 30,000 are in post-secondary education, according to Tom Wolanin, who wrote the report.
The report cites myriad reasons for the low college attendance, such as the inadequacy of federal student aid in the face of spiraling higher education costs and the special barriers that foster youth face as they age out of the system. Wolanin also cites the trauma of foster youth being abused and neglected, taken from their families, and sometimes suffering abuse and neglect in foster care.
Foster kids undergo a dizzying number of school changes, which is an additional drag on their educational progress. Studies show disproportionate rates of diagnosed mental health problems among foster youth, Wolanin said. Many kids also lose their health insurance as they leave child welfare and enter their college-age years. Some might get coverage through full-time jobs, and that usually eliminates college as an option.
Even if the ETVs have sparked a state tuition-waiver movement, the federal program lacks comprehensive data about how many youths get the vouchers. States report ETV program data voluntarily. About half report voucher distribution, totaling 8,700 vouchers so far, said Pamela Johnson, senior child welfare specialist with the U.S. Administration for Children and Families.
About 17 states offer post-secondary tuition waivers for foster youth, according to the National Resource Center for Youth Services (NRCYS), a training and technical assistance provider at the University of Oklahoma. They vary widely in terms of who is covered and until what age, and which institutions are included.
For example, North Carolina’s program, adopted last year, waives state university tuition for current and former foster youth (ages 17 to 23) if they are eligible for Chafee ETVs and have exhausted all other sources of financial aid. New Jersey’s program, enacted in 2003, covers homeless youth as well as current and former foster youth. About 500 people are enrolled.
But some states struggle to find participants. Just 77 students – out of thousands of eligible kids – took advantage of Maryland’s seven-year-old waiver program in the 2005-06 school year, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission. That’s actually better than the 63 who participated the previous year and the 55 who took part the year before that.
“I think more students could be reached” with better promotion and dedicated state funding to encourage higher education institutions to waive fees for foster youth, said Elizabeth Urbanski, acting director of the commission.
The Maryland Legislature is considering a bill to extend the tuition waiver to foster kids residing in group homes; the program now limits the waiver to those living with individual foster families or who were adopted from foster care after age 14.
Beware those who claim that tuition waivers are a panacea for getting foster kids a higher education, said Eileen McCaffrey, executive director of the Orphan Foundation of America. The Virginia-based organization helps foster youth transition to adulthood, and also serves as ETV administrator for nine states.
“Our kids are not prepared” for college, McCaffrey said. “So even if you give them money … what is their graduation rate? Are they coming out of school able to take advantage of opportunity, and is college the only thing we should be talking about?”
The tendency to emphasize traditional four-year degrees can discourage foster youth from exploring trade school, which McCaffrey sees as a valid pursuit that can prepare them for a responsible adulthood.
“I think tuition waivers are wonderful,” she said – if they are on a continuum of services that include life skills and pre-college educational support. “When they are less than that, they’re a cop-out.”
With average college dropout rates approaching 50 percent, it is difficult to keep foster kids in higher education once they get there.
California, which doesn’t have a tuition waiver program, features a somewhat comprehensive approach.
The Orangewood Children’s Foundation Guardian Scholars program is a fast-growing partnership, involving about 30 schools in California and beyond, to increase foster youths’ educational opportunities. The program is built on the notion that youths need comprehensive support while they’re in post-secondary school, particularly if they are living on their own, said Diana LaMar, the foundation’s higher education liaison.
Guardian Scholars may receive year-round help with housing, academics, finances and employment, along with scholarships, on-campus mentoring and mental health referrals. All of that dramatically improves their retention rates, LaMar said. One study of Guardian Scholars attending California State University at Fullerton found a retention rate of 69 percent, above the university-wide retention rate of about 50 percent.
The foundation also offers transitional living programs, where, LaMar said, foster youth are encouraged to start thinking about post-secondary school (including trade schools) through career fairs, visits to college campuses and other activities.
The program packages federal, state and scholarship support, with many of the partner colleges and universities picking up whatever costs are left over. “Our goal,” she said, “is to get the students through loan-free.”
Contacts: The Orphan Foundation of America, http://www.orphan.org; the Orangewood Foundation Guardian Scholars program, http://www.orangewoodfoundation.org/programs_scholars.asp; the “Higher Education” report, http://www.ihep.com/Pubs/PDF/fosteryouth.pdf.