Opinion

States Use Tuition Waivers to Support College Enrollment of Youth in Foster Care

tuition waivers: Woman works with invoices on laptop at desk.

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More first-generation, low-income students and students of color, including youth in foster care, are enrolling in college than ever before. However, youth in foster care continue to enroll, complete credits and graduate at lower rates than their low-income peers. 

Nationally, 5% of youth aging out of foster care surveyed at age 21 had received a vocational certificate, while only 3% had received an associate’s, bachelor’s or higher degree. Students who do not enroll in college point to cost as the primary obstacle. Young people in foster care are disproportionately low-income and often lack financial and emotional support from parents and other relatives typically provided to their non-foster care peers, often well into their 20s. Without a college degree, young people from foster care have limited job opportunities, drastically reducing their lifetime earning potential.

tuition waivers: Liliana Hernandez (headshot), child welfare program specialist in Children's Bureau, smiling woman with short brown hair, glasses, wearing blue patterned scarf, gray blouse.

Liliana Hernandez

To address this issue, 27 states (Alaska, Arizona, Connecticut, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Washington and West Virginia) have created tuition waiver programs or state policy programs that waive tuition and fees at public colleges and universities for youth in foster care who meet eligibility requirements. Supporting tuition waivers for youth in foster care is a bipartisan issue, and in more than half of states, the legislation passed when the gubernatorial leadership differed from the political majority in the legislature. In eight states both Democrat and Republican majorities each passed tuition waivers. 

This concept is not new; all states have tuition waivers for active members of the National Guard and for other populations such as children of veterans who fell in the line of duty, unaccompanied homeless youth, deaf students or state employees. In most states, the waivers serve as a last dollar scholarship to cover the cost of instate tuition after all financial aid has been awarded. State legislatures passed these waivers mainly as an unfunded mandate to the universities to cover the cost of tuition. 

Waiver programs vary greatly by state

However, there are few policies that mandate implementation of the waiver program, leaving public universities with discretion to decide which classes can be waived, such as online classes, or if the program can be offered to part-time students. In some states, the child welfare agency may be responsible for implementation while in others it is the higher education authority that disburses the tuition waivers. While some states knew exactly the number of tuition waivers that had been dispersed, not all states were tracking this information or the cost of the waivers. 

tuition waivers: Angelique Day (headshot), assistant professor at University of Washington, smiling woman with long dark hair, earrings.

Angelique Day

Florida had the highest number of youth in care, adopted youth and youth in the care of relatives using tuition waivers at 4,657 in 2016. Texas reported the second highest number at almost 3,200. Connecticut had the third highest at almost 500 youth and is the only state to cover room and board expenses out of state equivalent to the costs at the University of Connecticut. Massachusetts and North Carolina reported more than 335 youth, while Kansas, Oklahoma and Maryland stated that more than 100 waivers were used. Ten other states (Alaska, Arizona, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Virginia) reported fewer than 100 waivers used, while four states (Kentucky, New Jersey, New Mexico and West Virginia) did not report this data.

Tuition waivers vary drastically in terms of eligibility for participation across states, such as: a young person must have been in foster care on their 18th birthday; or received a high school diploma while in foster care; or an individual was adopted or placed in guardianship after age 16; or has been in custody for a certain time period after age 16, or waivers must be used in consecutive years.

Time limits connected to waiver use should be re-examined based on new research that youth who have been in foster care take longer to attain degrees than their non-foster care peers. Many youth in foster care will qualify for federal financial aid including Pell Grants in addition to tuition waivers. Unfortunately Pell Grants are also time limited, and cannot be used after six years or 12 semesters. With only 26% of foster care alumni earning a college degree within six years compared to 56% of their peers, these youth may be cut off financially from both Pell Grants and tuition waivers as they struggle to complete their final courses. 

It is not clear why more states have not enacted tuition waiver laws or policies. One reason may be that since a majority of youth in care attend community colleges that are more inexpensive, it is possible that most of their tuition can be covered through financial aid. Most community colleges still do not provide housing for youth in care, and many youth may still find themselves homeless while completing a college degree. Tuition waivers could be strengthened to include housing assistance for these youth. 

New strategies are needed to ensure that our nation’s most vulnerable young people, those who have a history of placement in the foster care system, are able to transition successfully from high school to college, work and life. Tuition waivers are one promising practice toward realizing these life goals for all youth placed in care.

For information about state tuition waivers, visit http://depts.washington.edu/fostered/tuition-waivers-state 

Liliana Hernandez, a board member of the Virginia Family and Children’s Trust Fund, has published in peer-reviewed journals on postsecondary education and kinship care and presented internationally on higher education, child welfare and positive youth development. She is a child welfare program specialist in the Children’s Bureau, Division of Program Implementation at the Administration for Children and Families, Department of Health and Human Services. 

Angelique Day is an assistant professor at the University of Washington whose research focuses on foster care youth, including examining the differences in college retention rates between foster care youth and other low-income first-generation college students, and examining “youth voice” and its impact on child welfare, education and health policy reform. She has received many awards and honors, including a yearlong congressional fellowship, and has been an evaluator, principal investigator or project coordinator on major studies funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, W.K. Kellogg Foundation and McGregor Fund, among others.

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