After several years of planning, a nonprofit child welfare service provider is preparing to launch the nation’s first-ever college for foster youth.
KVC Health Systems plans to open its yet-to-be-named campus in January 2018 in Montgomery, West Virginia. The goal is to admit 50 initial students and grow slowly into a campus of 500 with a staff of 200.
An original plan to build a campus on a shuttered naval base was scuttled when the base was sold, but the plan for a campus in the state’s Upper Kanawha Valley, at the former West Virginia Institute of Technology, gained steam after Gov. Jim Justice highlighted KVC’s plan in his first State of the State address.
Most states, including West Virginia, offer at least some combination of college preparation and tuition assistance to current and former foster youth. The KVC project appears to be the first to actually establish a college dedicated to educating foster youth.
Those eligible to apply and attend the new college are youth who have aged out of foster care, foster youth who are deemed likely to age out, and foster youth who were adopted or placed in legal guardianships after the age of 16.
One major difference from a standard college arrangement is that students will not see any bill for tuition. The cost will be covered by “existing state and federal resources available to foster youth through their transition to adulthood,” said Tommy Bailey, a spokesman for KVC, in an e-mail interview with The Chronicle of Social Change.
The federal funds largely come in matching form from two sources: the Chafee Foster Care Independence Act, a 1999 bill that funds education and independent living assistance for aging-out youth; and the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act, which among other things funds optional state expansions of foster care services to age 21.
West Virginia’s MODIFY program – Mentoring with Oversight for Developing Independence with Foster Youth – provides for full tuition waivers to students who were in foster care before or after graduation. Students receiving waivers are required to apply for eligible federal loans and grants, including the Chafee Educational Training Voucher, which is worth up to $5,000.
Another major difference from the standard college: KVC’s campus will be open year-round, which addresses a significant challenge for many students who age out of foster care.
“Most foster youth in transition do not have adequate housing during semester breaks and holidays,” Bailey said. “Most community colleges are commuter schools and do not have available student housing.”
The initial academic portfolio offers students the chance to complete vocational training or use the campus to jump to other institutions to pursue a bachelor’s degree. A local community college agreed to set up a branch on the KVC campus to provide “a variety of accredited workforce-bearing” and “associate degree options,” Bailey said. The campus will also offer remedial coursework, GED prep and life skills training.
With year-round housing, Bailey said the early estimate is $50,000 per year, per student. The college will initially be available for foster youth from West Virginia – not just those already referred to KVC – but might one day be opened to students from other states.
All of the students will also be given paid employment, either on campus or in the community, Bailey said.
KVC Health Systems operates in West Virginia, Kansas, Kentucky and Nebraska. Bailey said the organization is hoping to establish a name for the school that incorporates both the work with the Upper Kanawha community and KVC’s brand.
West Virginia saw 3,458 youths exit its foster care population in fiscal 2015, down from 2014 but up from a recent low of 2,832 in 2012.
Of those 3,458, only 71 aged out into adulthood through emancipation. That is nearly double the number of youths who aged out in 2012, but well below the 230 youths who emancipated in 2005.