Breaking down barriers for college-going foster kids

Breaking down barriers for college-going foster kids

(Calif.) In an effort to increase the number of foster youth who are not just college ready, but are actually prepared to enroll, a statewide campaign has been launched to ensure that children in foster care are accessing financial aid.

The California Department of Education, the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office and John Burton Advocates for Youth announced the initiative last week, which involves greatly expanding the number of high school seniors in foster care who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Already, about 60 percent of counties in the state have committed to targeting the postsecondary outcomes of foster youth by helping to increase their access to financial aid.

“There has been an incredible response so far to the challenge, and it’s really gratifying to see how many at the local level recognize the importance of dealing with this issue and how many want to participate,” Debbie Raucher, director of John Burton Advocates for Youth’s education programs, said in an interview. “About 35 counties so far have registered, and those counties represent the vast majority of foster youth in California.”

According to Raucher, many of the counties that have registered so far include large counties with higher populations of foster youth, including Los Angeles, Fresno, San Francisco and San Bernardino.

Ninety percent of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA go on to enroll in college within 12 months, compared to just 45 percent of high school seniors who do not complete the application, according to a 2015 report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And although there has been a push in recent years at both the state and national level to boost the number of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA, those in foster care are often left behind.

Recent statewide surveys show that while 85 percent of California’s foster youth aspire to complete college, just 8 percent obtain an associate or bachelor’s degree by age 26–compared with 46 percent of the non-foster youth population–with the cost of tuition and supplies acting as a common hindrance.

Raucher said much of the problem stems from the fact that many students in foster care simply don’t realize that these funds are there to help them or don’t know to whom they can turn for help applying. Last year, for instance, she said that only half of the foster youth who enrolled in community colleges last year received a Pell Grant, even though nearly all of them likely qualified, and that billions of dollars in federal financial aid go unused each year.

In California, there are nearly 64,000 children in the foster care system, and more than 16,000 are between 16-21 years old.

The California Foster Youth FAFSA Challenge is designed specifically to support high school seniors in foster care by helping them navigate financial aid applications and by providing the resources and information foster youth need to accurately complete the FAFSA or, for undocumented foster students, the California Dream Act Application.

The goal is to ensure that at least 60 percent of foster youth in the state who are high school seniors complete a financial aid application. One focus of the challenge is to help local school officials identify and connect to foster youth and supply them with the information they need to receive financial aid.

The Challenge will be led at the county level by Foster Youth Services Coordinating Programs in partnership with schools, districts and other local community organizations serving foster youth.

High school seniors who complete the FAFSA in participating counties will be entered into a drawing for 30 $500 scholarships, and counties with the highest completion rates will also be awarded $1,000 grants which they can use to promote post-secondary success for foster youth in their counties.

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