An Emerging Threat to Higher Education Opportunity for Foster Youth

For the past 25 years, Californian community colleges have waived enrollment fees for foster youth and other financially needy students. For the past two years, the state’s foster youth have also had the right to priority registration for community college classes.

Unfortunately, both of these tools assisting foster youth in pursuing higher education opportunities are now in jeopardy for some students.

The threats stem from a series of 22 recommendations made by the California Community Colleges Student Success Task Force, a body created after passage of Senate Bill 1143 in 2010. The California Community Colleges Board of Governors (BOG) is currently implementing many of these recommendations, including the two impacting foster youth.

Specifically, according to new regulations issued by the BOG, students across the state who were enrolled with priority registration would now lose that status if they were to be placed on academic probation with a GPA of 2.0 or less for two consecutive terms.  The BOG is also holding a hearing next month whereby they will consider a proposal to eliminate fee waivers for these same students.

This punitive approach fails to consider the educational stability challenges that many youth have to deal with during their time in foster care.  As youth are moved from foster home to foster home they are often forced to transfer schools as well, leading to missed classes, issues with credit transfers, and inconsistent curriculum.

Consequently, many foster youth are unprepared for postsecondary education after high school graduation and are much less likely than their peers to graduate from college. In fact just four percent of former foster youth hold a college degree compared to 36 percent of the general population.

The lack of a degree limits a youth’s future career prospects and earnings potential, and increases the likelihood of them facing unemployment and homelessness. Priority registration gives foster youth the right to access the classes that they will need to graduate and earn their degrees, improving their chance for professional success.

Lacking parental support and typically earning about half the income that their peers make, these same youth are much less likely to have the same financial resources as other students when they begin community college. The fee waiver is critical in removing financial barriers to their enrollment in higher education.

A recent report by the Stuart Foundation entitled At Greater Risk details the unique challenges facing foster students and why they deserve special consideration. Punishing these youth both academically and financially for their performance would likely result in fewer foster youth being able to continue their educational pursuits and attain a degree.

Though the BOG’s priority registration conditions have already been issued, they are of dubious legality. Assembly Bill 194, which granted foster youth the right to priority registration, did so unconditionally. Perhaps that helps explain why language was recently attached to legislation pending in the Senate, attempting to codify the BOG’s plan and give it a legal basis.

A group of advocates – including California Youth Connection, the John Burton Foundation, Public Counsel, Children Now, and the Alliance for Children’s Rights – has already initiated discussions with key legislators in an attempt to have the language codifying the priority registration restrictions stricken from the bill.

This same coalition is also fighting the fee waiver changes being proposed by the BOG, which fortunately have not been implemented yet.

Others can and should join in the fight.  California has always been at the forefront in undertaking efforts to increase education opportunities for foster youth.  These proposals threaten to undo much of the progress that the State has made and they should be actively opposed.

Sean Hughes is a member of The Chronicle of Social Change’s Blogger Co-Op. He is a policy consultant working with child welfare organizations in California and Washington, D.C, and spent 10 years as a Congressional staffer. 

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About Sean Hughes 7 Articles
Spent 10 years on Capitol Hill as a Congressional Staffer; helped write and pass the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008; member of Child Welfare League of America Government Affairs team; founder of Hughes Consulting and Strategic Planning, provide policy consulting to clients in child welfare and related areas