Sometimes I feel like the “Tortoise and the Hare” fable is the story of my college career.
I entered foster care at the age of 2 when my parents became incarcerated. I spent the next 18 years in foster care, with the dream of someday attending college and earning a degree. But after four years in college, I have yet to complete my two-year Associate’s Degree.
That may sound crazy to some people, but it’s extremely common for California’s foster youth, who complete college at rates much lower than their peers. By age 26, just 4 percent of foster youth hold a bachelor’s degree or higher, as compared with 36 percent of their peers in the general population. A big reason for that is the cost of higher education and a lack of access to financial aid.
But like thousands of foster youth around the state, I’m not going to give up. I am going to keep fighting for my education. I’m asking the State of California to fight alongside me by adopting Senate Bill 12.
SB 12, authored by Sen. Jim Beall (D-San Jose), will help foster youth succeed in college. After bipartisan support in the California state legislature, it is now on the governor’s desk. If signed, the bill will improve access to financial aid for foster youth, specifically the federally funded Pell Grants that provide up to $5,920 for a student enrolled in college full-time.
Currently, almost all youth in foster care are eligible for this critical form of financial aid, but just 50 percent receive it, according to a 2015 report on foster youth attending college in California.
SB 12 makes three fixes that will ensure foster youth have access to the Pell Grant. The first one is simple: require a foster youth’s social worker to identify a person to help them apply for college and financial aid.
That would have been a big help to me. When I was 16, I lived in a foster home where college was never discussed. No one in the house had a college degree and when I asked to be driven to the county Independent Living Skills Program to get learn about college, I was refused.
My social worker cared, but wasn’t much help. I was placed in Sonoma County, but she was based in San Mateo County and didn’t know about local resources to help youth with college and financial aid applications. She also had a long list of legally required activities to conduct but helping me apply to college was not one of them. SB 12 would change that by ensuring a youth receives this help as part of their case plan.
The second provision of SB 12 would streamline the financial aid verification process, which requires foster youth to produce proof that they were in foster care in order to be deemed an “independent student.” I tracked down my social worker and got this proof before my first year at Santa Rosa Junior College, but when I returned for my second year, I was no longer able to find her. This meant that I lost the Pell Grant, which forced me to reduce the number of units I was taking because I now needed to work full-time.
As a look back, I can see that losing the Pell Grant is when my college career really started to go off track. I was determined to stay in college, but I now had to pay for it by working more and taking out loans.
I often transferred colleges to be close to better jobs, and in three years attended Napa Valley College, Consumes River College, American River College and eventually Sacramento City College.
SB 12 would prevent a simple piece of paper from having this devastating effect. It would authorize an instantaneous data match between the two state agencies that administer foster care and financial aid for college, so campuses no longer have to force foster youth to furnish proof of their time in foster care in order to be eligible for independent student status.
The final provision of SB 12 would offer more support to help foster youth stay enrolled in college. Across California, there is a network of 26 publicly funded programs on community college campuses that provide hands-on support for foster youth, including academic and financial aid counseling specific to foster youth. With this kind of help, participants in these programs are 50 percent more likely to receive the Pell Grant than foster youth attending college statewide.
This kind of targeted assistance makes sense. The laws and regulations that pertain to foster youth are very specific and often not widely understood by the best-intentioned financial aid officer. At each college I attended, I had to explain, yet again, that I had been in foster care and was not required to submit my parents’ income information. In addition to being repetitive, I also found it painful to disclose this personal information over and over, often at a financial aid counter.
I finally received the kind of help that SB 12 could provide at Sacramento City College, which has a program to help foster youth navigate higher education. This assistance has allowed me to better manage my course load, stay in good academic standing and maintain financial aid.
SB 12 is not a handout to foster youth. It doesn’t lower the bar or hold foster youth to a different set of rules. Instead, it makes a few simple administrative improvements that can yield tremendous results.
An analysis of the bill found that the increased rate of Pell Grant receipt will bring an additional $29.5 million in federally funded financial aid to foster youth. The cost to the State of California is an estimated $56,000 annually. I may not be a business major, but that seems like a good investment to me.
My path to college has not been a straight one, but I am committed to staying on it until I achieve my goal of being an attorney for children and youth in foster care. I continue to be enrolled part-time at Sacramento City College. With my work commitments, I take two classes a semester, which means that despite being in college for four years, I likely still have at least three years left.
But I don’t let that discourage me. I was in foster care for 18 years, fighting for a better life for myself and for foster youth who come after me. And, as the fable laid out, it was the tortoise that won the race. SB 12 can make the race a little easier by opening the door to higher education and economic security for California’s foster youth. I urge the Governor Jerry Brown to sign this important legislation.
Alexis Barries is a youth organizer for John Burton Advocates for Youth and attends Sacramento City College. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.