Child Welfare Ideas from the Experts #7: Helping Youth Move Toward College

MacKenzie McGeehan, 21, a student at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Penn. Photo by Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute

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 MacKenzie McGeehan, 21, a student at King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Penn.

The Proposal

McGeehan’s goal is to strengthen the federal support for youth who have aged out of foster care and are pursuing an education. Her first move would extend the Chafee independent living program to include former foster youths between the ages of 23 and 26. This would bring the age ceiling level with eligibility for the Chafee Educational Training Vouchers (ETV), which provide grants to help current and former foster youths pay for postsecondary education.

She would also require, as a condition of a state’s participation in the Title IV-E federal entitlement for child welfare funding, that agencies conduct workshops about how to finance a college education. McGeehan would also streamline the process by which colleges verify “independent student status,” a critical aspect in the determination of financial aid packages.

The Argument

Current and former foster youth have all the collegiate burdens of other students, and then some more, McGeehan argues. Two she hones in on: that it is difficult to establish independent student status to maximize tuition assistance, and frequent challenges with stable housing.

In Their Own Words

“Although I officially exited foster care the same day that I moved into my freshman dorm, the [independent living] program continued to provide me with assistance for miscellaneous expenses such as my phone bill, food and toiletries through a monthly college stipend until I turned 21. During my senior year, when I needed the most help with graduate and law school applications, I was able to cover these additional expenses by working a third job during the summer. Unfortunately, not everyone has this luxury.”

The Chronicle’s Take

McGeehan’s proposals emanate from a concern that is frequently voiced by Foster Youth Interns:

Boundless Futures, the most recent set of policy proposals from the Foster Youth Internship Program

the effort to educate foster youth about going to and affording college is haphazard at best. If there is anything that systems owe a child likely to age out of care, it is predictable and guaranteed support in planning for their future.

Expanding the Chafee independent living eligibility up to 26, even with the college vouchers, could help pull some resources together on campuses to help kids work through issues with financial management or housing. So many foster youth who make it to college are forced to leave because of these issues.

But that doesn’t help the many more foster youth who never even get on campus. Tying college preparation sessions to the IV-E program, as McGeehan recommends, would likely mean states had to demonstrate in their state plans how this was carried out – which would stop short of a promise that all kids were getting it. If Congress ever gets serious about expanding IV-E foster care by getting rid of the income eligibility test, that would likely be the time to throw some new conditions on the program.

As for streamlining the “independent student status” test – which is now in the mainstream media conversation, thanks to jerk parents gaming the system– McGeehan supports the measures for this included in Sen. Patty Murray’s (D-Wash.) pending bill, the Higher Education Access and Success for Homeless and Foster Youth Act. Murray’s bill permits seven different ways that a college could verify a foster youth as “independent.”

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