The number of college assistance programs for current and former foster youth is growing, but there are still major gaps in helping students access them, according to a national survey of state-run colleges.
The goal of the survey, produced by the First Star Institute’s Foster Youth Success in College Project, is “to provide a more detailed current look at what these programs look like, how extensive they are throughout the country, and to detail best practices in place in different parts of the country.”
The number of programs serving students in higher education has expanded in recent years, according to the report. About half of the 50 states now have some form of college-based programs. Nearly 200 programs have been set up in all regions of the country, though that number does not include those at community or private colleges.
Nearly half of all states provide tuition waivers or vouchers aimed at helping former foster youth pursue higher education. But those who cannot obtain full waivers can face big future costs.
For Michelle Walls, president of the Michigan chapter of the National Foster Youth Institute, making it through college meant taking on a lot of debt. She is a recent graduate of Michigan State University who benefited from the university’s FAME (Fostering Academics, Mentoring Excellence) program.
But there were still many financial resources she missed out on.
“I took out a lot of students loans, and I ended up reaching the student loan max,” Walls said. “There were certain awards I only received in the last year of college. Even with a financial aid liaison, it wasn’t really explained to me.”
Because she was adopted out of foster care at age 13, Wells was not eligible for many scholarships and assistance in Michigan, which limits eligibility to those youth in foster care at age 14 or older.
That’s something she wants to change for youth in care.
“When you have numbers as low of 3 percent of foster kids graduating, something’s got to give,” Walls said.
Other former foster youth cannot access college-based programs because of the variations in program eligibility in different states. College-based support programs in some states are open to students who have been in foster care at any age, but that calculus changes in other states. Some states have a cut-off point for eligibility, while others only offer support to youth currently in care at the time they are enrolled.
In terms of on-campus support services, the appropriate identification of foster youth continues to be an issue for many colleges. In particular, the way some colleges understand confidentiality restrictions for the federal financial aid form (FAFSA) may be limiting outreach to some foster youth. According to the report, these privacy concerns “limits confidential outreach by campus-based programs to foster care alumni.”
First Star sent out a survey to more than 600 public, four-year colleges inquiring about college programs for alumni of the foster care system.
The survey was released last week at a congressional briefing by First Star Director of Policy and Programs Noy Davis and three former foster youth. Also announced last week was legislation that would prioritize enrollment of foster youth in high school programs aimed at increasing their odds of getting to college.