Breaking the Cycle through College Access: A Foster Youth Story

When I was eight years old, I became a ward of the court, joining 600,000 other children in the foster care system. Over the next few years, I lived in several foster homes and attended six different schools. Fortunately, I was a good student and I graduated knowing I wanted to go to college. But there was a problem.

How was I supposed to pay for it?

Having already faced immense challenges, foster youth who graduate high school are met with yet another roadblock when applying to college: the financial aid process. Research suggests that although the vast majority of the foster youth hope to go to college, just 20 percent ever enroll, and as few as 2 percent ever obtain a bachelor’s degree. It’s a status quo that reinforces an unending cycle of poverty for many who leave foster care.

We know that financial aid can have a transformative impact on the odds of success for foster youth. In fact, foster youth who receive financial aid are 40 percent more likely to earn 15 or more credits per year—a measure shown to increase persistence—than those who do not. Unfortunately, the financial aid system is not designed for students like me. It’s a process that can confound even the most supported students and families, and it presents a maze of additional barriers for foster youth. Few fill out the FAFSA, and—because foster youth often grapple with misinformation and poor support—few realize that they are actually eligible to receive the maximum federal Pell Grant.

In high school, I had no idea want a Pell grant was. While I knew that I needed to fill out a FAFSA, I didn’t know where to find the application. Eventually, I located a printed copy, but I found the form difficult to understand and complete. I did not how to answer many of the questions about my parents or my housing situation. Overwhelmed, I gave up and took out several student loans.

Once I was at Arizona State University, I tried once more to receive financial aid, but bureaucracy again got in the way. I was asked to prove I had been a ward of the court, and the paperwork asked for information on the locations of my parents—information I could not provide. Foster youth are asked to prove their situation over and over again as they move through the education system. Though they are not required to do so, more than 50 percent of colleges complicate the aid application process by asking for additional documentation to verify that students are or were, in fact, wards of the court.

Some states and institutions are starting to invest in strategies to better connect foster youth with the financial aid they need to succeed in higher education, though we need far more. In Arizona, foster youth are now offered free tuition through a combination of federal grants, scholarships, and university aid. Last year, California adopted a new law to address the challenges foster youth face in paying for college. The law requires every county child welfare agency in the state to identify a person to assist foster youth with applications for college and financial aid. It also streamlines the financial aid verification process for foster youth who apply through FAFSA. Other states and institutions offer similar resources, but they remain difficult to find for many foster youth.

Intervention must begin early, with high school counselors helping direct foster youth to the forms and applications they need. Colleges should organize outreach to high schools in their area, targeting foster youth and other at-risk students. Resources offered by colleges and state agencies should be easy to find, simple to understand, and bilingual.

Advances in mobile technology can help with this. As Philadelphia youth advocate Anthony Simpson puts it, the “cellphone is life” for many foster youth, providing them with a digital tether to much-needed resources, as well as their social network. In 2017, the Juvenile Law Center and the University of Pennsylvania School of Social Policy and Practice launched an app that uses geolocation to provide foster youth with lists of nearby resources like homeless shelters, public libraries, and educational programs. A similar app was launched in Los Angeles County in 2015. In the future, such apps could also be used to point foster youth toward financial aid support and other higher educational resources.

Mobile apps are also starting to simplify the financial aid process for students that might not have a support system that can help them navigate the complexity. The U.S. Department of Education’s new mobile FAFSA app is a much-needed step in the right direction. Other apps gather financial aid forms, award letters, and other important documents and resources in one, always accessible place, making the process much easier and more intuitive for foster youth and all students.  

I was fortunate to attend college and graduate, despite the challenges I faced. Many other foster youth are not so lucky. Throughout my career in student affairs and financial aid, I have met many students who are struggling through educational journeys similar to mine. It saddens me to think of the thousands more students I will never meet because they didn’t receive the support they needed to transition from foster care into higher education.

But I’m optimistic that with better policies and emerging technologies, we can help foster youth confront one of the biggest hurdles in higher education: paying for it.