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Children's Voice Article, May/June 2002

Educational Opportunity for Youth in Care

Several states have implemented tuition waivers and other forms of financial assistance for youth in care, former foster youth, and children who were adopted from foster care.

by Kelly Mack

As children in foster care gain their independence from state systems, they seek options. Just like other youth finishing high school, they are looking to the future and setting goals, and often want the opportunity to obtain higher education. But without the support of birthfamilies, what options do these youth have?

Some 17 states have implemented programs to support foster and adopted youth in earning their college degrees. The programs vary, from scholarships to tuition waivers, but in recent years, more of these young people have been able to live the dream of college with the help of the state foster care systems that have been providing services to them.

Scholarships for Youth in Foster Care

In 2001, Oregon enacted a tuition scholarship program for youth who have been in foster care or adopted from care. The bill that established the Oregon Former Foster Youth Scholarship Fund was written by Adam Cornell, a third-year law student at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon, who had spent much of his childhood in foster care in Washington State. [For Adam Cornell's story in his own words, see "From Youth Advocacy to Youth-Adult Partnerships," Children's Voice, January 2002.]

Under Oregon's program, youth who were in foster care at least 12 months from ages 16 to 21, and who enroll in an Oregon college or university within three years of graduating from high school or obtaining a GED, or within three years of leaving foster care, are eligible for a scholarship to any accredited Oregon institution of higher education, public or private. The scholarship is limited to the annual tuition rate for the state university system.

Funding for the scholarship program comes from a combination of state appropriations and private gifts to the state's scholarship fund. In 2001, the Oregon Student Assistance Commission (OSAC), which manages scholarship programs for Oregon, collected $8.7 million in contributions for all scholarships. Supplementing the scholarship fund with private donations is critical, since the state appropriation for the Former Foster Youth Scholarship Fund is currently just $100,000 per biennium.

The scholarship legislation was enacted in July 2001, and OSAC was able to bring the program online in time to process scholarship applications for the fall semester. From 17 applicants, 13 scholarships were awarded, totaling $37,458. Six students attend community college; five, Oregon public universities; and two, private colleges in Oregon.

The scholarship is renewable for up to four years of undergraduate education, depending on funding availability. "The will is here, but the means do not seem to follow, in financial terms," says OSAC Administrator Sherrill Kirchhoff. OSAC expects more applicants for the 2002-2003 school year, but the governor has warned state agencies to be prepared for a 10% budget cut across the board. OSAC is working to solicit contributions and preserve its funding to ensure that the foster youth tuition scholarships continue and that new students can apply.

Tuition Waivers

Florida has been helping youth in its foster care system for 15 years with a tuition waiver to state universities. Youth in foster care, receiving independent living services, or adopted from state care after May 5, 1997, are eligible. They must be in college full-time, work at least part-time, and maintain at least a 2.0 grade point average. Youth formerly in foster care have the option of extending independent living services until age 23, which allows them to continue receiving services such as case management and a stipend to cover living expenses.

Under the program, eligible students are exempt from all undergraduate fees, plus fees for any noncredit classes they have to take to get their skills up to par. Waivers are good for four years or eight semesters or, for students who need to take prep courses first, five years or 10 semesters. Eligible students must first apply for state and federal financial aid.

In many cases, youth receive a full federal Pell Grant, a scholarship, or state assistance, which can cover books and tuition. If these funding sources are not available, the student can apply for a tuition waiver. Waivers are also helpful for students who are waiting for other financial aid to begin-with a waiver, they can begin the semester while waiting for their financial assistance to be approved.

Each of the Florida Department of Children and Family's 15 districts award tuition waiver vouchers, which the state university system then collects. Thus, statewide figures for the number of youth receiving waivers are hard to come by. Children in foster care learn about the program through their Independent Living coordinators. Adoptive parents receive information about tuition waivers in brochures available throughout the adoption process.

Richard Funderburk is the Independent Living Director for Miami-Dade County (the fourth largest consolidated school district in the United States) and the Florida Keys. He notes that 80% of the students in his district stay with the program to complete their studies-a statistic that speaks to the program's success statewide, given his district's large, diverse youth population. "Youth across America should understand this is a very valuable assistance," Funderbunk says, suggesting they advocate for similar tuition waiver programs in their home states.

Incentive to Adopt

Like Oregon, Kentucky is in the first year of a new tuition assistance program. From 155 applicants, 124 youth were eligible for Kentucky tuition waivers in 2001-allowing them to have their tuition, fees, and other expenses waived at the commonwealth's public colleges and universities. Students who attend private institutions may also receive assistance, not to exceed the costs of state-supported schools; tuition assistance is not available for students who attend out-of-state schools except under extenuating circumstances.

Kentucky students who are in foster care on their 18th birthday, are adopted from state foster care, are in state-funded independent living, or are in the custody of the state juvenile justice system are eligible for tuition assistance. Qualifying students must apply within four years of earning a high school diploma or GED; waiver benefits are only valid for five years. Students must maintain a minimum grade point average of 2.0, apply for tuition assistance each semester, and obtain summer employment or participate in a work-study program.

Administered by the Kentucky Cabinet for Families and Children, the program covers direct school expenses, such as tuition, room, books, and fees, not covered by other resources. Thus, as in Florida, before they can receive tuition assistance, youth must apply for all other state, federal, and public financial aid for which they may be eligible. Also as in Florida, tuition assistance can begin while the student is waiting for other financial aid to be approved. Assistance for other approved expenses, such as clothing and incidentals, may be divided into payments throughout the semester.

Independent Living Coordinator Mike Yocum says the tuition assistance program was "started to encourage foster parents to adopt kids," combating the disincentive of adopting children in foster care when foster families no longer receive monthly support payments. By helping these youth and families with tuition assistance, the program promotes educational opportunities and recognizes the commitment of adoption.

Kentucky's General Assembly is planning some changes to the program, such as restricting the waiver to undergraduate school, expanding the program to include children adopted in Kentucky but who have since moved out of the state, and allowing part-time students to qualify, particularly those who cannot attend school full-time because of medical problems.

Youth Advocacy at Work

Maine has had a tuition waiver program since 2000. Youth who are in care with the Department of Human Services when they graduate high school or earn a GED, and youth who have been adopted from care, are eligible for waivers to Maine's public universities, state vocational technical colleges, or the Maine Maritime Academy. The program allows for waivers for 25 freshman each year; 22 freshman and 11 sophomores received waivers for the 2001-2002 school year. The state also has other programs for youth attending schools where the waiver program is not in effect.

The state's active Youth Leadership Advisory Team (YLAT), comprising youth in care, was crucial in advocating for the program before the state legislature. Several youth testified before the legislature's Education and Cultural Affairs Committee. Their stories were so moving that the committee approved the bill unanimously and moved it forward to the full legislature, where it eventually passed. One youth told the committee,
Increasing numbers of children in...Maine [are] going into foster care, which means there are increasing numbers of children who will grow up to need help with their future education because they don't have parents who support them. This bill would give these children the chance to be successful people in the future.
The young people who testified recognized the importance of education and the reality of not having the resources to afford college without the state's help:
I know how important a high school diploma is and that a college education will give me the opportunity to be successful in the future… Knowing that college is very expensive, I realize this goal may be impossible for me to attain.
Because the vocational technical colleges, the Maritime Academy, and the state university system agreed to absorb the cost of the waivers, the legislature did not have to budget a specific line item for the tuition waiver program.

The program's requirements are similar to those of other state tuition assistance programs. Youth must apply for federal financial aid and other forms of assistance to help pay for room, board, books, and fees for each year they are in college. The waiver then covers tuition until the student earns an undergraduate degree. Eligible students must be Maine residents and must not be failing or on academic probation. Students have to reapply every year to continue receiving the tuition waiver.

Spreading the Knowledge

Some states are exploring reciprocal tuition waiver programs, which would allow students to attend college in other states while still benefiting from a tuition waiver. Although no such arrangement exists yet, Florida's Funderburk and others think this could be a step in the right direction, allowing students who rely on tuition waivers to have more choices.

Exchange of information between state programs is be-coming more frequent. A wealth of knowledge exists in states already managing tuition assistance programs. Some states without tuition assistance for youth in foster care or child services have been researching the experiences of other states in considering programs of their own. Maine and Oregon are great studies of youth advocacy work, whereas Florida's program interests other states because it has been successful for 15 years.

These states and others are pioneers in considering the higher education for youth in foster and adoptive care. The approaches they have taken are excellent resources for states that are exploring tuition assistance programs to support youth in foster care. Although they may pose fiscal challenges to some states, these programs, undeniably, have inspired and educated youth, allowing them to pursue dreams and successes that might not have been available without the opportunity for higher education. As one YLAT member told the Maine legislature,
I have two younger brothers that still live in the abusive home and are around the drug dealing. I want to be a positive role model by finishing school and by living a productive life controlled by my own decisions… There are so many people that want to succeed but don't have the money, and I feel getting a good education is the most important thing to have.
Youth who are able to earn their degrees and reach their goals with the support of these state tuition programs serve as hopeful role models for their siblings and peers.

Kelly Mack is an associate editor with CWLA.

For More Information

National Resource Center for Youth Development (NRCYD)
National Resource Center for Youth Services
University of Oklahoma-Tulsa
Schusterman Center
4502 E. 41st Street, Building 4W
Tulsa OK 74135
918/660-3700
Fax 918/660-3737
A project of the National Resource Center for Youth Services, University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, NRCYD's website includes a list of states with tuition waiver programs, all state Independent Living Coordinators, an independent living discussion group, and other resources. Online, go to www.nrcys.ou.edu and select "National Resource Center for Youth Development."

Positive Youth Development/Youth Services
Child Welfare League of America
440 First Street NW, Third Floor
Washington DC 20001-2085
202/638-CWLA
Fax 202/638-4004
E-mail youthservices@cwla.org

CWLA will soon release a background paper, "Improving Educational Outcomes for Youth in Care: A National Collaboration," which will include information on tuition assistance and waivers. More information on youth services is available online at www.cwla.org/programs/positiveyouth.

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