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Berkeley or Burger King? For Foster Youth, the FAFSA Could Make the Difference

February 4, 2013

By Amy Lemley, Policy Director

Why don’t more youth in foster care receive a college degree? According to the best available data, the percentage of foster youth at age 26 with a college degree hovers at just 4%, as compared with 36% of their non-foster youth counterparts. Why this is the case is a question that is debated far and wide, with many competing hypotheses. Some will argue that youth in foster care switch placements too frequently, interrupting their education and thwarting efforts to continue on to college. Others suggest that most college campuses don’t provide the combination of academic and social support foster youth need, leaving foster youth adrift and unlikely to persist.

While I agree with both of these explanations, I’d also point to a more obvious one: M-O-N-E-Y. The cost of college has skyrocketed in the last 30 years, outpacing the growth in median family income by almost 4 to 1. This increase is a result of state governments shifting the cost of higher education from the taxpayer to the students and their families, a troubling trend for youth in foster care, who don’t have a family to help cover the cost. Twenty years ago, $25,000 was enough to put a child through a year at Harvard. Today, it won’t even cover two semesters at UCLA.

In the face of the exploding cost of college, the only way a youth in foster care can go to college is with extensive financial aid. Three important sources of financial aid are the Cal Grant, the Pell Grant and the Chaffee Grant. Together, they can provide up to $20,000 to attend a UC, $16,000 to attend a CSU or $12,000 to attend a community college.

Despite the availability of these funds, almost no youth in foster care access all three of them, just 4 percent according to a study by the Institute for College Access and Success. Of the three, the Pell Grant is by far the most accessible, with 84 percent of foster youth accessing it. Accessibility dropped precipitously for the Cal Grant and Chafee Grant, with just 17 percent and 9 percent of foster youth who applied for financial aid receiving it respectively.

The reasons? For Chafee, the main answer is inadequate funding. However, the main reason why more foster youth don’t get the Cal Grant is because they don’t meet the March 2nd FAFSA deadline. All eligible applicants to the Cal Grant are guaranteed to receive it if they apply by the March 2nd deadline.  Foster youth, however, often don’t know about this deadline or don’t’ have anyone to help them complete the FAFSA if they do know about it. This lack of awareness and assistance is costing our youth in foster care and holding back the progress of our child welfare system as a whole.

Like others, foster youth today require a college degree. Study after study has shown that it uniquely moves individuals out of poverty and into the middle-class. While the child welfare system has long understood this, we now have a new, more involved role. With foster care extending to age 21, we no longer usher youth to the front door of college, but instead have the opportunity to serve youth as they enter college and get a firm foothold in higher education.

This change requires the child welfare system to become more informed about college financial aid about and play a more active role in helping youth in foster care secure it. An essential first step in this process is to ensure that foster youth who want to go to college this autumn complete the FAFSA paperwork by the March 2nd deadline, just 25 days away.

To learn about financial aid workshops where youth can receive assistance completing the FAFSA, follow this LINK.


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