Like other children placed in foster care, Luz Hernandez was on her own when it came time for applying for or paying for college.
Because she had no parents, guardians or resources to help her figure out how to fill out financial aid forms, Hernandez did not get any grants or loans for her first year at City College of San Francisco, and was dropped from her first-semester classes. Later, a foster youth support program she found on campus helped her get financial aid and class counseling so she could to stay on track for graduation.
Hernandez got past her rocky start, but most foster youths who want to go to college do not. By age 26, only 8 percent of people who were in foster care as young adults have a college degree, compared to 44 percent of the total population.
“Starting out, it was really hard,” Hernandez said. “I was lucky that I found a support group at college to help me through this. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to make it through all of college with not even that.”
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State lawmakers are considering legislation to help foster youths navigate the college application process. Sen. Jim Beall, D-San Jose, introduced Senate Bill 12 to require social workers to set up an application help network for foster youths interested in college. It also would coordinate systems to automatically verify applicants’ foster youth status when applying for federal Pell Grants.
And the bill would double the number of California community colleges – from 10 to 20 – that have broader foster youth support services on campuses. The expansion would cost $6 million, according to estimates.
A 2012 state law raised the maximum age of foster youths from 18 to 21, and now a quarter of foster youths are older than 16. While this means foster youths still have the support of social workers when they’re college age, it doesn’t necessarily mean they have anyone specifically to help them navigate the college system, said Amy Lemley, executive director of John Burton Advocates for Youth.
“This (Beall) bill is really about retooling our workforce in foster care,” Lemley said. “The system just saw a huge demographic change, and we need to meet current needs.”
The amount of help parents and guardians provide in the financial aid process – especially when filling out financial aid and other forms – is under-appreciated, Lemley said. On top of having to figure out how to fill out things like income and tax reporting, she said, foster youths also have to fill out additional forms to confirm their foster status. SB 12 would automatically register these applicants under the “foster” status, and ensure there’s someone around to guide them through the rest of the paperwork.
Although 85 percent of community college students qualify for Pell Grants, only 50 percent of students actually receive the federal funds.
“The money is already there,” Lemley said. “It’s just a matter of making sure it’s actually getting to the young people that need it.”
Another measure, Assembly Bill 1567, would ensure that data about an applicant’s foster status and school forms are automatically sent to the college financial aid office.
Jesse Aguiar, the director of Beyond Foster Care, said the bill would make enrollment simpler for foster students and cut down on the amount of required paperwork to get aid by sharing data between schools, colleges and the state automatically instead of having students manually complete the process.
The bill faces its first committee hearing on March 21.
Support going into college is just one half of the story; making sure students stay in college and succeed is also a goal for legislators. Increasing the number of community college campuses with foster youth support programs will help school retention and graduation rates for these students. Under the proposed expansion, more students would have help getting financial aid, enrolling in the right courses and understanding how to transfer to other universities.
Hernandez, meanwhile, graduated with her associate’s degree last May, and is attending San Francisco State University for a degree in liberal studies and a minor in criminal justice with plans to attend graduate school. She said she wants to become a social worker to help other foster children who are going through what she did.
“I was able to do it, so everyone should be able to,” Hernandez said. “Just because we’re fosters doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be able to succeed. We’re able to access higher education, too.”