Five California Counties Honored for Helping Foster Youth Apply for College Financial Aid

Tulare County accepts its award at the April 1 California Foster Youth Education Summit. Photo courtesy of John Burton Advocates for Youth

The winners of the second California Foster Youth FAFSA Challenge were announced this week at the Foster Youth Education Summit in Sacramento, recognizing five county offices of education for helping foster youth qualify for financial aid for college.

The challenge is divided into four categories based on county size. Nevada County won the very small county category, with 100 percent of the high school seniors in foster care completing the Free Application for Federal Financial Aid (FAFSA), which helps connect prospective college students with federal grants and loans.

Tulare won the small county category with an 83 percent completion rate. Winning its category for the second year, Fresno took the prize for the medium-sized county category with 83 percent, and San Bernardino won the large county award with 52 percent completion. The most improved award — new this year — went to Placer County, which helped 71 percent of eligible high school seniors in foster care apply for aid, up from 43 percent last year.

Each of the winning counties received awards between $500 and $1,000 to support supplemental activities that help foster youth transition to college life.

The contest, launched in 2017, is organized by John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), a statewide foster youth advocacy organization, in collaboration with the California Department of Education and the California Community College Chancellor’s Office. This year, 52 of California’s 58 counties competed — 10 more than last year.

“Statewide, the Foster Youth Services Coordinating Programs are really embracing the FAFSA challenge,” said Tia Holiday, JBAY’s education program manager. “They are creating meaningful partnerships and working directly with the foster youth in their counties to complete the FAFSA.”

The challenge was designed to help foster youth tap into millions of financial aid dollars that they leave on the table each year, despite being eligible, according to JBAY officials. In addition to the contest, JBAY provides webinars and other resources to guide youth through the FAFSA process.

“Over 90 percent of foster youth say they aspire to go to college,” said retired Sen. John Burton, who founded the organization behind the challenge, in a press release last year. “Having someone to guide you through the seemingly simple effort of completing the FAFSA, and then receiving the resources to actually pursue a post-secondary education, can be a life-changing event.”

Despite those aspirations, only 8 percent of former foster youth in California earn an associate’s or bachelor’s degree by the time they turn 26, according to a University of Chicago survey study. Financial hardship plays no small role in this disparity.

Only about half of foster youth attending community college receive federal Pell grants, though nearly all would qualify, JBAY project director Debbie Raucher told The Chronicle in 2017.

This year, foster youth have nearly matched their peers in completing the FAFSA so far. JBAY says 47 percent of 12th grade foster youth in the state have completed the application, compared to 52 percent of all California high school seniors.

These awards are the first of two rounds that JBAY will hand out. These ones recognized counties who had the highest rates of completion for the March 2 priority FAFSA deadline; a second round of awards will go out in June after the final deadline in May.

Correction: This article originally indicated that 20 more counties participated in this year’s challenge than last year’s. In fact, 10 more counties participated. The story has been updated to correct the error. 

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Sara Tiano, Staff Writer, The Chronicle of Social Change
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