Tuition Waivers Help Hundreds of Arizona Foster Youth Imagine a Different Future

An Arizona pilot program to waive in-state college tuition for foster youth is set to expire on June 30, 2018, but advocates are pushing for a more flexible version of the program to be made permanent under House Bill 2482.

Analysis by advocates found that a total of $810,028 in fees and tuition were waived by Arizona’s public colleges and universities on behalf of 199 students from spring 2014 to fall of 2017.

Students at ASU who participate in the Bridging Success program, which helps students with foster care backgrounds navigate college. Photo: Bridging Success

Bridging Success, an on-campus support program for students with a foster care background at Arizona State University in Tempe, said it sees anywhere from 100 to 200 students each academic year, many of whom benefit from the tuition waiver.

Justine Cheung, the program’s coordinator and a licensed foster parent, says the waiver is critical to getting these traditionally under-served students to college, and not just because of the financial assistance it affords.

“It’s a great starting point. When you’re working with youth in the community and you start talking about college, there are some attitudes that happen like ‘nobody cares, why are you even talking to me about this, I’m never going to college,’” Cheung said.

“They have defense mechanisms in place because they haven’t had the greatest experiences K-12. So the waiver allows us to go in and address one of the biggest initial concerns about going to college, which is ‘even if I wanted to go, I could never pay for it.’”

There are 29 states with some form of tuition waiver programs for students with foster care experience, according to a 2016 evaluation of Arizona’s waiver pilot, including California, New York, Michigan and Texas. During this legislative session, Wisconsin is introducing its own waiver program.

Basic eligibility requirements for Arizona’s waiver include having been in foster care on or after one’s 16th birthday, or adopted after one’s 16th birthday, U.S. citizenship (or status as a qualified non-citizen), personal assets worth $10,000 or less, under the age of 23, and attending an Arizona public college or university.

The evaluation of the waiver pilot identified a number of challenges, some of which are addressed in this year’s bill. Many foster youth, for example, begin college later and take longer to complete a degree than their peers. HB 2482 would extend the upper limit of the age range from 23 to 26.

“Raising the age of eligibility to 26 could be a game-changer,” Cheung said. “About a third of our [Bridging Success] students who identify as having been in care are online students and they’re older because they’ve had to wait until later in life to pursue their education.”

The bill also extends eligibility in the other direction, allowing youth who were in care from age 13 and up to apply, rather than age 16.

Justine Cheung, Bridging Success Coordinator at Arizona State University. Photo: Justine Cheung

“The tuition waiver for foster youth is critical to increasing their access to higher education, but its impact is much farther reaching,” said Molly Dunn, director of FosterEd Arizona, in an email. “The promise of the tuition waiver encourages younger foster youth, those in middle school and high school, to visualize a future for themselves that includes college. It ignites their college and career dreams and puts those dreams within their grasp.”

The revised tuition waiver would also re-order the way financial awards are applied to students’ tuition and fees. In the past, all federal and public grants had to be applied to the student’s financial burden before the tuition waiver kicked in. Since waiver funds could only be used toward tuition and mandatory school fees, this left students without funds to cover housing, books and other costs.

Cheung says most of her students at ASU get financial aid packages that include on-campus housing and end up with minimal student loans – partly because they have her advocating for them with the financial aid department.

But with such a small army of people like Cheung across the state, many students are not so lucky. Maricopa County, for example, has only one individual serving all former foster youth looking to go to college – and it’s the most populous county in the state. Arizona as a whole was home to about 4,500 teenagers in foster care as of March 2017.

Other issues identified by waiver pilot auditors that are not directly addressed in HB 2482 include outreach and awareness of the tuition waiver program, inconsistent data collection by stakeholders, and in some cases wrongfully awarding or denying awards to students. Evaluators also found that the lack of a formal agreement between stakeholders – for example the Department of Child Safety and universities – might have hindered the program’s implementation as well as applicants’ access to the program.

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