In 2014, Israel Brown packed up and moved across the county to attend the University of Texas at San Antonio. He was born in Texas and spent the first three years of his life in foster care before being adopted. He suffered abuse at the hands of his adoptive father, and was kicked out of the house when he was a junior in high school. Brown alternated between staying with friends and his girlfriend at the time, eventually moving with her to her grandparents’ house in Washington state to finish high school.
Growing up, he was aware that Texas offered free college tuition for former foster youth and always planned to attend. In addition to the waiver, Brown said he was awarded scholarships to attend college that would cover his living expenses while he was in school. Two weeks after arriving on campus, though, he was told he wouldn’t receive those scholarship funds because he was already receiving the waiver.
Brown got a job at a nearby Taco Cabana and spent most of his freshman year in meetings with administrators trying to figure out why he didn’t get the financial aid he was promised.
“I beat myself up about it,” Brown said. The biggest obstacle he felt he was facing was a lack of knowledge and understanding on the part of university administrators about state and federal laws and resources for former foster youth.
“They’re not educated on students with a history of foster care,” Brown said. “They’re unable to give clear answers. And that frustrates the student because students are like, ‘Oh, that’s the issue. Let me go resolve it.’ And then they resolve it and they come back, and they’re like, ‘Oh, no, it’s something else.’”
Texas lawmakers have taken steps over the past five years to expand access to resources and support services for foster care alumni on college campuses, but without state funding or oversight, those services are offered unequally across the state.
Though Texas has offered free college tuition to former foster youth for nearly three decades, studies show that few ever earn a degree. In 2015, Texas lawmakers required all public colleges and universities in Texas to appoint a liaison to assist students who used to be in foster care. The liaison must post their contact information on the school’s website and reach out to students who were in foster care to make them aware of the state and federal resources available to them. Advocates who work with this group of young people say the liaison requirement is an important initial step in connecting students with support services, but they ultimately find it “toothless.”
The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board keeps a list of the foster care liaisons at each institution of higher education, but each institution is individually responsible for filling and defining that role. This requirement, just like the state’s tuition and fee waiver for former foster youth, is an unfunded mandate, which means the school has to foot the bill for any services offered or find outside funding.
In 2018, more than 6,000 students received tuition and fee exemptions under the state’s waiver program at a cost of $22.2 million to the colleges and universities they attended, according to the Texas Comptroller. Sheila Bustillos, the past president of Education Reach for Texans, a nonprofit group working to support foster care alumni pursuing higher education, said these costs aren’t likely to incentivize institutions to allocate more money to this small but uniquely vulnerable population of students.
“If you’re starting out in the hole already, you’re not likely to want to allocate resources to build a very strong campus support program,” Bustillos said.
Many colleges have administrators, advisers or professors doing the foster care liaison job in addition to their other responsibilities. At Temple College, Misty Reid serves as the coordinator for accommodations to all students at the school, the adviser to its international students and as foster care liaison.
At the start of each semester, she emails the students who receive tuition waivers to introduce herself and tell them about campus support services and the federal Education and Training Voucher, which can provide students who were or still are in foster care with up to $5,000 per year for college expenses.
“Sometimes it can be a little hectic,” Reid said of juggling her three roles. “You have to prioritize and take one hat off and put on another.”
Bustillos said there are about 28 universities in Texas that have strong support groups for former foster youth, up from about five a decade ago. Among two-year institutions, Bustillos said around 30 have strong programs and 32 do not.
At those schools, she said, “all they really have is a named liaison.”
Toni Watt, a professor of sociology at Texas State University in San Marcos, co-founded one of the state’s leading foster care alumni support programs there in 2011. The program – FACES: Foster Care Alumni Creating Educational Success – was originally funded by a grant, but those funds have since run out. Both Watt and the university’s foster care liaison, Christine Norton, an associate professor in the School of Social Work at Texas State, have volunteered their time and services for free for several years.
In 2013, Watt and Norton found that freshman retention among the foster care alumni at Texas State increased from 64% to 84% after they began the FACES program, a rate that actually exceeded that of other Texas State freshmen.
In addition to Watt and Norton, the program was staffed by a retention specialist from the school’s Office of Retention and Management and three social work graduate students for the first several years. Together, they emailed former foster youths about scholarships, employment and tutoring, hosted social events and organized community service projects. They also established a student organization that promotes peer support and created a book lending library.
Since their grant ran out, Watt and Norton have been relying on the university to fund the program.
“Over the years, they’ve chipped away and chipped away at it,” Watt said. “And even though we’re now at the 10-year mark, we’re starting to lose a lot of the support.” This year is the first time the program hasn’t received funding to hire social work graduate students to serve as student advocates.
Watt says she’ll keep volunteering her time, but wishes either the state or the university would provide some level funding for their support services. The students they work with are in a “precarious position,” she said.
“It could go either way,” Watt said. “It could go really disastrously for a lot of these youths. Or, if they can get this moment of stability, this tiny bit of social capital that is post-secondary education, and maybe begin to meet some faculty or staff that are mentors for them, then it can really make all the difference in their lives.”
Watt is embarking on a two-year study with a national research team to evaluate the support services offered at Texas colleges and universities for former foster youths. She hopes to determine which institutions are complying with the liaison requirement and study the effectiveness of the initiatives being employed across the state.
In the six years since Brown enrolled at the University of Texas at San Antonio, it’s become a model for support services. The Texas Legislature allocated $3.5 million in 2019 to UTSA, Texas A&M San Antonio and the Alamo Colleges District
s to fund a pilot program that aims to address the needs of the 600 former foster youth attending their institutions.
That funding allowed UTSA to open the Fostering Educational Success Center, a one-stop-shop for resources including information on how to secure housing, meals, financial support and peer mentoring. UTSA is also one of the few Texas colleges and universities with a Supervised Independent Living program in place that allows qualifying foster care alumni to live in a dorm on campus for free and provides them with a meal plan and small monthly stipend, eliminating several massive barriers common to this group of students.
Emily Miller works full time as the foster care liaison and associate director at the center along with a campus coach, five student workers and a master of social work intern.
One year in, the center is engaged with 64 students, which is almost half of the population of former foster youth on campus, Miller said.
While UTSA now serves as a model for other schools looking to expand their support services for foster care alumni, each one is limited by their available funding and resources.
“Without those external dollars, we would not be able to function,” Miller said. “The student population that we serve across the state, the need is the same. It’s just a matter of making the opportunity equitable.”
Brown says what he needed most when he started school was clarity and stability, and neither came easy. When UTSA’s new president started in 2017, his wife, Peggy Eighmy, took a special interest in the students who were once in foster care. Brown shared his experience with her and became an integral resource during the development of the pilot program. The first time he met other foster care alumni on campus was when the center opened in 2019.
In September, Brown started working as the center’s peer advocate. He’s set to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in December.