Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts #6: Doubling Chafee Education Vouchers

The Chronicle of Social Change is highlighting each of the policy recommendations made this summer by the participants of the Foster Youth Internship Program (FYI), a group of 12 former foster youths who have completed congressional internships.

The program is overseen each summer by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. Each of the FYI participants crafted a policy recommendation during their time in Washington, D.C. Today we highlight the recommendation of Demontea Thompson, a graduate student at the University of Southern California.

The Proposal

Thompson calls for Congress to double the maximum award amount for the Educational Training Voucher (ETV), a component of the Chafee Foster Care Independence Act. He would also permit states to use an “opt-in” process to get those funds to youth as they prepared for college, not wait until they arrived on campus.

The main Chafee funding stream, a $140 million independent living program block grant, was established in 1999. Three years later, Congress added ETV as a college assistance piece for youth who aged out of foster care.

The Argument

College tuition, along with all of the costs associated with attending college, has risen significantly since 2002. Meanwhile, the ETV maximum award has remained the same: $5,000.

Demontea Thompson, a graduate student at the University of Southern California

This might be a workable amount in some states where costs have not risen as much, and there are a few states that even return ETV funds each year (in fiscal 2013, Thompson notes, about $1.6 million in ETV funds came back to the federal government).

But in California and many other states, aging out foster youth need more financial help when it comes to getting into, attending and living at college.

Notes Thompson: The National Center for Education Statistics reported that annual tuition at public four-year institutions has increased from $9,196 in 2002 to $18,632 in 2015.”

In His Own Words

“The cost of college and other unforeseen challenges made it difficult for me to navigate and do well academically. In addition to attending classes and studying for exams, throughout my college years I worked a total of 30-40 hours a week to pay for basic expenses such as professional clothes and wisdom teeth surgery.

Paying for food was another constant struggle In contrast to the ‘Freshman 15’ my peers acquired, I lost 20 pounds during my first year in college.”

The Chronicle‘s Take

As Thompson makes exceedingly clear, the relative value of the maximum ETV has been greatly diminished by tuition rate hikes and the cost of living. In the time since ETV was introduced, many states have stepped up for foster youth with tuition waivers and additional assistance programs.

But part of ETV’s value is its flexibility. The funds can be used for tuition, room and board, or relevant supplies. And at least in some parts of this country, the level of flexible money needed by former foster youth has gone way up.

Some researchers have argued that federal attempts to increase supports for college students have actually been a perverse driver of tuition costs. But this is connected to grand-scale increases to federal loans and aid; Congress could move to hold former foster youth harmless with more ETV support, and that would not move the college tuition market one penny.

Our concern with Thompson’s proposal is that it does not peg this increased maximum for ETV to a higher authorization overall for the program. This is also a potential concern with the current legislation proposing an expansion of ETV to 26, which proposes to do this without any increase in ETV funds.

Here’s the problem. When you raise the award or expand the universe, some states might be able to accommodate it without additional money. But in states like California, where there have not been enough ETV funds to reach every eligible student, higher maximums would thin the receiver pool even more.

This could lead to a Hobson’s choice of sorts. Do you want close to 100 percent of eligible youth getting a $5,000 grant? Or 50 percent of the eligible youth getting $10,000?

Really, the answer should be that neither is acceptable. Some growth in the ETV appropriation is warranted, even if Congress needs to get creative.

In order to provide the average annual ETV recipient total with Thompson’s proposed increase, the ETV appropriation would have to jump to about $168 million. That’s probably not going to happen anytime soon.

But the amount needed to reach each recipient with the current $5,000 max would be $84 million, which seems a bit more doable in appropriations. What if a reauthorization at $84 million was done in tandem with a pegging of the max award to some state-by-state calculation of tuition change?

Another possibility might be allowing states that have expanded foster care to 21 to use their larger Chafee fund allocation to supplement ETV. Perhaps some of these states no longer need independent living funds as much as they need college assistance.

Thompson’s call for more support in the face rising tuition is on point. It just needs to be done without the unintended consequence of leaving some students with no support.

Click here to read the full report, including all of the FYI proposals.

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John Kelly
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John Kelly is editor-in-chief of The Chronicle of Social Change.