Opinion

California Legislation Eases Access to Financial Aid, Support for Foster Students

financial aid: a mortarboard or graduate cap being lifted higher with the help of a balloon

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Young people from foster care face significant challenges when it comes to transitioning into independent adulthood. Research shows that foster youth take longer to adjust to adulthood, often due to trauma and stress. These issues often cascade into delays in not only social and emotional development, but also in career and educational progress.

One promising pathway to healthy and successful adulthood for young people transitioning out of foster care is through higher education. However, college is not always easily accessible for transitional-age foster youth. The average college student in California will likely face challenges related to finances and unmet basic needs, but foster youth face an additional set of challenges.

financial aid: Jessica Smith (headshot), statewide liaison for Foster Youth Success Initiative, smiling woman with long red hair, sleeveless white blouse.

Jessica Smith

From missing important deadlines or becoming too old to apply for financial aid, some simply don’t know where to begin. Unfortunately, only about 8 percent of foster youth ever complete a college degree. Leveling the playing field to make access and outcomes more equitable for current and former foster youth who are pursuing, or wish to pursue, higher education should be one of California’s top priorities.

Through legislation and budget increases, California policymakers recently addressed some of the typical barriers that foster youth pursuing higher education face. Hopefully this is a sign of progress toward more equity for current and former foster youth.

California expands Cal Grant for foster youth

The Cal Grant provides financial aid to thousands of California college students every year. While many are eligible, only 9 percent of foster youth in California’s community colleges receive Cal Grant. Unlike their peers, foster youth often lack adequate mentorship and guidance around the college and financial aid application process, and they often miss important deadlines or don’t complete the process at all.

As part of an effort to address these issues, California legislation now requires each public college campus in California to have a foster youth liaison and requires county child welfare agencies to identify someone who can provide guidance on college and financial aid applications. Common challenges for foster youth who missed out on Cal Grant included not applying within a year of completing high school, or missing the annual March 2 deadline. In addition to initial access challenges, foster youth will often take longer than the four-year maximum award time of Cal Grant to complete a college degree.

To address these delays and challenges, legislation in 2018 extended the application period and the length of participation in the Cal Grant B program specifically for foster youth. The application window has been extended, and foster youth students are no longer required to apply for Cal Grant B within one year of completing high school. Foster youth students are now eligible to receive the Cal Grant B for up to eight years (or the equivalent number of units accumulated while attending full-time for eight years), rather than four years.

And foster youth students in California’s community colleges now have an extended deadline of Sept. 2, rather than March 2, to apply for Cal Grant B (though it is important to note that applying early is best to maximize aid amounts). Other eligibility criteria for Cal Grant include not being over age 26 as of July 1 of the award year and demonstrated financial need. Students can apply for Cal Grant by completing the FAFSA .

Chafee Education and Training Voucher (ETV) expanded

The Chafee ETV provides up to $5,000 per year for college or career and technical training to eligible foster youth. Recent legislation expanded Chafee ETV eligibility criteria so that students can now apply until age 26, increased from age 23. The increased age limit will provide more foster youth students with money for college.

Students who lost their Chafee ETV award after turning 23 have been notified that their award is eligible for renewal until age 26. The legislation also funds Chafee ETV outreach to students who may not be aware that they are now eligible for the voucher. The eligibility requirement that a student must have been in foster care for at least one day between their 16th and 18th birthday remains the same. Students can apply for the Chafee ETV by completing the FAFSA and filling out the Chafee application.

CalFresh eligibility expanded

Over half of community college students in California struggle with food insecurity, and foster youth are even more likely than their peers to face challenges when it comes to meeting basic needs. CalFresh, California’s version of SNAP, is a program that addresses those needs by providing money for groceries every month. According to the Chapin Hall CalYOUTH study of 17- to 21-year-old foster youth in California, only 33 percent had ever accessed CalFresh and only 20 percent were receiving CalFresh benefits at the time of the study.

In California, one eligibility criterion for students receiving CalFresh is that the student must work at least 20 hours per week, or 80 hours per month. Working while going to school often delays completion, graduation or transfer — putting program participants at a disadvantage to finish the very training that would prepare them for a higher-wage job.

In 2017, under direction of recent California legislation that expanded CalFresh eligibility for students, the California Department of Social Services released a list of programs that exempt students from the CalFresh work requirement. The list includes programs that “increase employability for current and former foster youth” and include the Foster Youth Success Initiative, Guardian Scholars, Cooperating Agencies Foster Youth Educational Support (CAFYES)/NextUp, AB12/Extended Foster Care and Chafee ETV.

Allowing foster youth students who are pursuing their education to leverage participation in campus support programs as an exemption from the work rule is another promising step in equitable access to education. Targeted outreach efforts to increase the number of foster youth students receiving CalFresh benefits are taking place across the state. Students can apply for CalFresh at students.getcalfresh.org.

Equitable access to financial aid and public benefits is critical to opening pathways for higher education, and to the success of current and former foster youth students. California advocates and policymakers must continue to encourage legislation that address the unique needs of current and former foster youth and continue to make California a place where all young people have the opportunity to thrive.

Jessica Smith is a senior specialist for equity programs, and the statewide liaison for the Foster Youth Success Initiative at the Foundation for California Community Colleges.

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