She's Adopted

They just didn't tell her

From Foster Care to College

on December 11, 2012

It Takes More Than Money

Young people making the transition from foster care to independence need more than help with tuition costs. More than 20,000 youth aged 16 and older transition from the foster care system each year. Only 50 percent will have graduated from high school. Over half will be unemployed, and a quarter will be homeless for one or more nights.

The 1999 Foster Care Independence Act gave states more leeway in providing programs to help kids during the precarious period of “aging out.” But gaps remain. Many foster youth who enter college do so without reliable access to housing or medical insurance, not to mention family support.

Alfred Perez, who lived in 11 group homes in 4 years, didn’t think of himself as a great student, and particularly not as a great test-taker. But thanks to the support of his independent living program in Contra Costa County, California, he applied to college and was accepted.

“I only applied because I knew there were dorms on campus,” Perez says, “and I knew if I got in, I would have somewhere to live. I was so afraid of being homeless.”

Perez graduated with a 3.7 GPA and only $2,500 worth of loans, thanks to the independent living program that helped him with his financial aid forms.

“Once I decided on the schools I wanted to apply to, the independent living program contacted the schools themselves,” Perez says. “I didn’t qualify for certain aid because I was working all through high school, so my program made sure that they knew I was a foster youth and my income was temporary. They made sure that I was able to receive full benefits of financial aid,” Perez says.

“I only applied because I knew there were dorms on campus … I was so afraid of being homeless.”

A Pell Grant paid for much of his tuition, and his job as a resident assistant took care of housing. Perez worked during the summer to pay for books and living expenses. He also benefited from a program sponsored by a local nonprofit organization and the county department of human services that provides scholarships to youth in transition.

But for many foster youth, applying and reapplying for aid is a struggle. Don Graves, director of the Contra Costa County independent living program, says that filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) itself is the first obstacle. It looks as daunting as an income tax form, and some of the language can be confusing for kids.

“You have to check off ‘orphan’ or ‘ward of the court,'” Graves says. “That signifies you should get more aid. But they’re so used to being called foster youth”

David Rippon, formally of the U.S. Dept. of Education says that the government has taken measures to make the FAFSA easier to fill out, such as posting it online. Parents or students who don’t have financial aid counselors can call 1-800-4FED-AID for help.

“The kids who are going to have the most difficult time filling out FAFSA and going to college are the kids whose parents didn’t go to college,” Rippon says. “That group may include foster kids plus others.”

Whether or not a student receives financial aid depends on the student’s particular situation. Foster youth applying to college should be eligible for Pell Grants, the only federal aid that students do not have to repay. They are also eligible for Stafford Loans, although the amount depends on whether or not the student has income from part-time jobs.

Special Challenges

Many foster youth have moved from school to school throughout their education and find that they have gaps in their learning. They may not be prepared to take on a full course load, which also has impact on their eligibility for financial aid.

Adam Cornell says that many foster youth have not yet learned basic studying skills and time management. “How do you sign up for classes, manage your time, work and go to school when you haven’t formed meaningful relationships with people who have already been through it?” Cornell asks.

One foster youth describes the experiences of friends who dropped out of school for a semester or took a summer job and found they were no longer eligible for the same amount of aid upon returning. Other kids do not know they are eligible at all because they don’t tell financial aid officers that they were once in foster care.

“They miss out on a lot of money because they think it’s stigmatizing,” she says. “They say, ‘I’m out of the system now, that’s behind me.'”

Joan Merdinger, a former professor and now associate Vice President of Faculty Affairs at San Jose State University, surveyed foster youth attending the school. She found that many kids did not want to identify themselves with foster care. “People didn’t want to be identified as former foster youths because they’d been so marginalized by their status earlier,” Merdinger says.

Merdinger found that foster youth on campus were in dire need of food, housing, financial aid, medical insurance, health insurance and counseling. They did not know about faculty mentoring programs, academic advising, legal counseling services, psychiatric counseling, career planning and other services. To help inform students, Merdinger and her colleagues created a pamphlet about campus services. Rather than addressing the pamphlet to foster youth, they addressed it to first-year students whose parents had not attended college. Merdinger conducted a larger survey of foster youth across California State Universities over the next year.

Programs and Policies

Around the country, programs and policies are beginning to assist foster youth in obtaining a college education. Here is a sample of innovative public and private programs:

  • California State University, Fullerton, in partnership with the county foster care program, offers the Guardian Scholars program for kids who have been in foster care. The program provides tuition, books, year-round housing and faculty mentors.
  • Together with the state department of child welfare, Texas A & M University at Commerce offers a four-year, $1,000 per year scholarship to help pay for room and board for foster youth who qualify. Each student is paired with a faculty or staff mentor and a sponsor family in the community.
  • In Massachusetts, the state department of social services provides state college tuition waivers for foster and adoptive youth.
  • A Connecticut policy enables the Department of Children and Family Services to pay educational expenses—including books, health care and room and board—for foster youth attending college.
  • The Orphan Foundation has given out $1.3 million in scholarships to foster youth in 46 states since 1991. This year, they well give out a total of $1.1 million, thanks to a partnership with Casey Family Programs.

Still, most states do not have legislation or regulations to help foster youth attend college. Eileen McCaffrey of the Orphan Foundation says there is a danger in thinking that piecemeal efforts involving private scholarships and small-scale public programs will ensure that all kids who age out of foster care have a fair chance of going on to college.

Denis Ichikaw, formally a of Casey Family Programs and now Assistant Director of the Human Services Department of Maricopa County, Arizona, agrees. “Tuition is only a small part of the barrier, because most of these children aren’t in traditional situations where they have supports from family,” Ichikawa says. “Finances are one part of the big picture, which is just getting kids through basic education. What are we going to do to compensate for their lack of support, their living expenses, and a place to go for the holidays?”

Clinging To The Edge

A study — from Chapin Hall, a policy research center at the University of Chicago — finds that those who age out of foster care are not exactly falling off a cliff, but they are desperately clinging to the edge.

Mark Courtney is with Partners for Our Children, a policy center at the University of Washington. Over the past eight years, Courtney and colleagues from Chapin Hall have been following the progress of more than 600 former foster kids.

“Many of them are faring poorly,” says Courtney. “Less than half were employed at 23, 24. They’re much less likely to have finished high school, less likely to be enrolled in college or have a college degree.”

In fact, by age 24, only 6 percent have two- or four-year degrees. More than two-thirds of the young women have children. Nearly 60 percent of the males have been convicted of a crime. Almost a quarter were homeless at some point after leaving foster care.

“Those children are our children, the children of society, of the state,” says Courtney. “I would argue that we have no business taking them into care and then keeping them until they’re in the transition to adulthood, unless we’re going to try to do a good job of that.”

They’re trying in Tampa.

Raising An Adult

Two weeks after his 18th birthday, Josh Mendoza meets his advisers at a GED program for those aging out of care.

“All right, so Josh, you know we do this once a month,” says Sarah Hart, the program coordinator. “You’ve been in the hot seat before, so let’s start by getting an update on your progress.”

Hart is concerned because the first day Mendoza was on his own, in his new apartment, he didn’t come to school.

“Why is that, Josh?” she asks.

Mendoza sheepishly explains that his alarm clock didn’t go off and he missed his bus. He says he had no other way to get there. Hart responds as a parent might.

“My question is, did you call Mr. Mark or Miss Colette to let them know you weren’t going to be here that day?” she asks.

“No,” says Josh.

“OK. You know, those things are going to happen,” Hart responds. “You’ve just turned 18, and you’re getting adjusted to coming from a new place. I mean, I get all that. If that happens again, though, you have to call your teachers and let them know. That’s part of being responsible.”

Mendoza knows he can’t afford to screw up. His $1,256 monthly stipend from the state is contingent on him staying in school.

“If I lose my check, I’m going to the street,” he says. “And then I wouldn’t know what to do, or who to ask, or who to turn to.”

A Resilient Group

Researchers say former foster kids who have someone to rely on do better than those who don’t. But right now, only a handful of states provide foster care beyond 18. While several other states are planning to do so in response to a new federal law, state budget problems could put a crimp in those plans. In Florida, there’s even talk about cutting the stipend for former foster kids in half.

Katrena Wingo, who spent most of her life in foster care, kisses her son.

But Courtney says this is also a resilient group. By age 24, about half of those surveyed in his new study appear to be doing OK. Their lives have begun to stabilize.

Katrena Wingo of Tampa considers herself one of those people. At 24, she has a job and a place for her and her 3-year-old son, Ajai, to live. It’s a tiny duplex, but with a yard big enough for her to play with him when she comes home from work.

But it’s been a long haul getting here. Wingo entered foster care as an infant and stayed until her 18th birthday. After she aged out, she was OK for a while, but then she got pregnant. She stopped working and spent months moving from one friend’s sofa to another.

“And at the time I wasn’t going to school,” she says. “So it was hard.”

Eventually, with the help of friends, some family members and the nonprofit Connected by 25, she began to turn her life around. Wingo says perhaps the biggest eye opener was having a child of her own.

“It’s just like, OK, you have another life in here that you brought into this world. And now everything that you do, everything that you own, everything that you spend, is not only yours or for you, it’s for your child now. So he’s your No. 1 priority,” she says.

Wingo still depends on food stamps — and on her landlord to cut her some slack when the rent is due. But she’s back in school trying to earn her degree. She hopes someday to become a counselor for troubled youth.

And Josh Mendoza? He says that if he gets his college degree, his goal is to run group homes.

For More Information:

Scholarships for Students who Received Foster Care:




Resources:1. Courtney, M.E., Roderick, M., Smithgall, C., Gladden, R.M., Nagaoka, J.(2004). The Educational Status of Foster Children. Issue Brief. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago.

2. Courtney, M.E., Dworsky, A., Pollack, H. (1997). When Should the State Cease Parenting? Evidence from the Midwest Study. Issue Brief. Chicago, IL: Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago.

3. Wolanin, T.R., (2005). Higher Education Opportunities for Foster Youth: A Primer for Policymakers. Washington, D.C.,: Institute for Higher Education Policy.

4. Wald, M. & Martinez, T. (2003) Connected by 25: Improving the Life Chances of the Country’s Most Vulnerable 14-25 Year Olds. Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA .

5.  American Bar Association & Casey Family Programs, (2008). Tuition Waivers for Post-Secondary Education. Washington, D.C., Legal Center for Foster Care & Education at the American Bar Association.


6. Jim Casey Youth Opportunities Initiative7. SparkAction from Julee Newberger

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