Financial Aid Strings are a One-Way Ticket Out of College for Foster Youth

Ashley Stone is a former foster youth from Anaheim who will study at the University of California, Riverside next year.

Later this month, I’ll walk across the stage and receive my associate degree from Santa Ana College. After that, I’ll transfer to the University of California, Riverside, with the goal of one day becoming a professor.

Sounds like another college success story. Simple, right? Well, it wasn’t for me, and it isn’t for the more than 35,000 current and former foster youth attending college in California.

As a child, my mother was in and out of jail and I was raised by my grandfather. He later injured himself at work, lost his job and became an alcoholic. When I was 14, he was no longer able to care for me and I left home. I slept in parks and couch-surfed for more than two years, before eventually entering foster care at age 17 after a teacher learned about my situation.

Throughout homelessness and my transition into foster care, I remained committed to school. I graduated from high school and enrolled at Santa Ana College, majoring in psychology. This semester, however, everything was put into jeopardy: I lost all state and federal financial aid because I failed to maintain Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP).

SAP is a set of standards college students must meet to qualify for state and federal financial aid. To maintain SAP, a student must have a minimum cumulative 2.0 grade point average, successfully complete a set percentage of courses and complete their course of study within a set time frame.

While it sounds well-intended, for foster youth, SAP is often a one-way ticket out of college. According to recent report released by John Burton Advocates for Youth, one in five foster youth living in California’s transitional housing programs lost their financial aid due to failure to maintain these academic standards.

When I opened the letter from my school to find that I had lost my financial aid, I was devastated. I had recently had a death in the family and was working 32 hours a week. I was about to turn 21 and age out of the foster care system, which meant losing my housing. Without financial aid, how would I pay for college tuition and fees, along with my many other expenses including rent, groceries, gas, books and utilities?

For young people not in foster care, the answer to this question is simple: family. According to the 2018 report “How America Pays for College,” parental saving and income are the largest source of funding for college, even among low-income families. The report found that the average American family pays $27,404 for their child’s college through a combination of current income, college savings, retirement savings and other savings or investments. Additionally, more than half of college students live at home.

So, when the average college student fails to meet SAP, they turn to their emotional and financial safety net: family. Losing financial aid may be an inconvenience or even result in taking a semester off. For foster youth, losing financial aid is a one-punch knockout that can impact housing stability as well as educational progress.

California has the opportunity to change this. The Chafee Education and Training Voucher (ETV) is a financial aid program specifically for foster youth which is currently subject to SAP requirements. This should be reconsidered. The Chafee ETV is one special source of financial aid for foster youth, intended to cover the living costs of youth transitioning out of foster care. For foster youth, the Chafee ETV is the financial lifeline that for most students is served by family.

My education certainly would not have been possible without the financial aid I received from the Chafee ETV. To take that away because students failed to meet SAP requirements after they have already experienced multiple hardships and instability goes against the reason for the establishment of the program itself. If the student doesn’t meet SAP, they will still lose the Pell Grant and Cal Grant. The Chafee ETV is one source of funding for California’s foster youth in college that shouldn’t be pulled out from under us when times get tough.

For me, losing my financial aid put everything I had achieved into jeopardy. I started the fall semester homeless and without financial aid. For a month, I lived in my car.

Fortunately, I only had one class left. Through perseverance, determination and a little bit of luck, I was able to make ends meet to finish out my degree, as well as obtain stable housing.

Many foster youth students, however, may not get the same opportunity and are forced to put their education on hold, or even worse, abandon it altogether. Let’s prevent that by changing the SAP requirements on the Chafee ETV and maintaining a financial lifeline for California’s youth in foster care.

Ashley Stone is a former foster youth from Anaheim, California. She will earn her associate degree from Santa Ana College later this month and will transfer to the University of California, Riverside to complete her bachelor’s degree.

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