Pennsylvania Should Adopt Tuition Waiver for Those Aging Out of Foster Care

Pennsylvania House Bill 1745 aims to give foster youth an opportunity for educational success by offsetting some of the financial stress they face. This bill seeks to provide tuition to state and community colleges to help support foster youth as they embark on their educational goals.

Education is one of the biggest protective factors we can give any child to help ensure their transition to self-sufficiency and success as an adult. The bill is a welcome step in the right direction. Affording an education is one of the greatest hurdles to success for youth who age out of foster care.

foster youth education
Bryn Albee at age 4, when she entered foster care, and recently at her graduate school graduation.

Children come to be involved with the child welfare system for a multitude of reasons. Abuse and neglect takes many forms, and children placed outside of their home to assure their safety have to grow up fast.

We didn’t choose to be in foster care. We didn’t choose to have parents who, for whatever reasons, were unable or unwilling to care for us. It was the hand we were dealt. We work hard to overcome the barriers, stigmas and trauma histories that follow us around.

Our past doesn’t define us. It is only part of our story. As we attempt to embark into adulthood we find that we have many hurdles left to overcome.

For those of us who can’t return home and aren’t adopted, we ultimately are faced with “aging out” of the child welfare system without permanency. In 2004, when I aged out, I was on my own without support from the state in any capacity. I was lucky though – I graduated high school, was accepted to college, and had a natural support system to help me in various ways.

Out of the 50 or so foster youth I met while in care, I was the only one to graduate high school. For those of us who do make it to higher education, only 2-6 percent graduate with an associate or bachelor’s degree. For me, there was no other option but a higher education.

Being a foster child who aged out meant that there was no backup plan – it was succeed or suffer, sink or swim. I put my best foot forward and took on unimaginable amounts of debt just so I could have a chance to succeed. I signed my student loan papers knowing that $70,000 debt was my best bet for a promising future.

For the few of us who make it to a college campus we are tasked with more barriers than our fellow students. Not only do we all have to navigate the course work and new atmosphere; foster children have to navigate a world constantly reminding us just how very different we are.

Ask us where we are from; there is no definitive answer because we moved around a lot. Ask us about our family and wounds open back up. Ask us where we are going for holiday and summer breaks; we don’t know. More often than not we don’t have a place to call home and our family life is far too complex to want to explain.

We often don’t get to live the normal college life and hang out with friends; we don’t have time. Most of us are working full-time jobs while in school so we can survive. We are fighters – we do what we have to do and we don’t complain about it, we just find a way to make it through.

It would be nice though to not have to fight so hard for once.

As children, the state stepped in to the parental role for us. What if the state who stepped up to assure our safety would also step up to help support us in our higher education? Wouldn’t it be wiser and kinder to afford us our education so we can do our best to make it in this world? If it’s a parent’s responsibility to care for their child and if the state is tasked with this job for foster youth, isn’t it then the state’s job to assure their child has the opportunity to make it in this world?

In recent years, the federal and state government have recognized that at 18 foster youth aren’t prepared to face the world as fully functioning adults without supports in place. How many 18-year-olds are? Legislation was passed to give foster youth the ability to stay involved with child welfare services until their 21st birthday as long as they are meeting specified criteria.

The state child welfare system works hard to prevent child abuse and neglect, reunite families when possible, and assure permanency when it’s not, but there are still barriers to success for our foster youth. House Bill 1745 is a concrete way forward for youth who have experienced great hardships. It helps alleviate the further hardship of substantial debt by affording foster youth the opportunity to get a tuition paid education.

This can propel foster youth forward to success in their adult lives. We have an opportunity to do some good for youth who often haven’t known much care or support. If we don’t step up to help the most vulnerable among us who will?

Bryn Albee is a former foster youth and current child welfare caseworker in Allegheny County, Penn. Albee recently earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Pittsburgh. 

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