In a First, California Foster Youth Outperform Peers in Applying for Federal College Aid

While the country plunges ever deeper into uncertainty amid the worsening coronavirus pandemic, ongoing protests, and a looming high-stakes presidential election, California foster youth still see a future in academia – and they are applying in record numbers for federal help to attend college.

This year for the first time, foster youth in the state have outpaced fellow high school seniors in completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid — better known by its acronym, FAFSA — which determines eligibility for a host of federal grants and loans. This year, 64.5% of seniors in foster care completed the application, compared with 56.6% of all seniors.

Recent grad Toby Herrera with peers at a 2019 Palmdale High School football game. Photo courtesy of Toby Herrera

Among the successful applicants is a triumphant Toby Herrera, 17, of Los Angeles County. He plans to attend Antelope Valley College in the fall.

“I already have my ID!” he said in an interview this week.

A growing number of foster youth in California have been applying for financial aid since 2017, when the nonprofit John Burton Advocates for Youth launched its yearly Foster Youth FAFSA Challenge. In the annual event, counties receive training and promotional materials and then compete for the most completed applications. Winning counties get prize money to fund supplemental services for foster youth transitioning to college life.

Navigating financial aid options can be daunting in the best of circumstances, but without family to help with the documents and deadlines, foster youth lose out on millions of dollars in financial aid they’re eligible for each year, JBAY has found. For example, less than half of foster youth receive federal Pell grants, though most would be eligible. The FAFSA challenge encourages school officials to identify and connect with foster youth in their high schools, to ensure they have the support to get into college.

For Toby that support introduced him to a trove of resources he didn’t know he had access to.

Toby, who lives with his grandparents, didn’t even realize growing up that he was in foster care until “Senior Day” at Palmdale High School when he met the school district’s foster youth liaison who clued him into his status — and the assistance he was entitled to.

Before that day, he said, “I didn’t know me having a social worker made me a foster.”

Driven to pursue a psychology degree and become a therapist, Toby had filled out the FAFSA on his own and was ready to submit it. But Giselle Ramos, who works with foster youth in the Antelope Valley Union High School District, noticed he hadn’t identified himself as a student in the foster care system. Ramos explained that as a foster youth, he’d be eligible for unique funding opportunities, like the Chaffee grant that provides up to $5,000 per year to help defray school costs.

Foster youth aspire to college at the same rate as their peers, but attend and graduate at a much lower rate. Too often, the crippling costs of college, on top of housing and basic necessities, becomes unsustainable with no safety net to fall back on. In a 2011 study from the University of Chicago’s Chapin Hall, only 8% of former foster youth had earned an associate’s or bachelor’s degree by the time they turned 26.

“For too long, far too many foster youth have been denied their dream of post-secondary education because they were unable to obtain the financial aid available to them,” said Amy Lemley, executive director of John Burton Advocates for Youth.

In the three years since the FAFSA Challenge launched to improve these outcomes, its  statewide completion rate has climbed from 45% to 64.5%. In Los Angeles County — home to the most foster youth in the state — it has more than doubled, shooting from 33% in 2017 to 68% this year.

A bill now being considered by the California Legislature aims to codify the FAFSA challenge into law, requiring counties to help foster youth fill out financial aid applications as part of their educational services, and report completion rates to the state.

The push for college could not have come at a stranger time. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the immediate future of academic life remains unknown and is likely to look completely different than incoming freshmen had once imagined.

While Toby said he is disappointed the social distancing on campus will prevent him from diving into the college social scene, he said he’s still excited to meet his teachers and start working toward his bachelor’s degree. He would be the first in his family to graduate college.

Already looking toward the future, Toby said he may even go for postgraduate degrees. Yet, like so much in the world these days, he quickly added: “But that’s a decision for later.”

Sara Tiano can be reached at stiano@chronicleofsocialchange.org. 

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