By Erica Hellerstein
For some community college students, $500 a semester might not seem like an unreasonable fee to pay for a full year of education.
But for Rebecca Taylor, a former foster youth who attended City College of San Francisco, it was much more than she could afford on her already modest budget.
“I definitely had a couple moments during my education where I seriously thought, is this worth it? “ she said. “Do I want to take on extra hours, do I want to go to school?”
To help supplement the cost, Taylor applied for the California Board of Governors (BOG) fee waiver, which covered her enrollment fees. She was also working at the time to compensate her housing expenses. With her hectic schedule her grades suffered in two of her courses. Luckily, she retook the courses and didn’t lose the waiver.
Next year, foster youth students in the position Taylor was once in might lose their financial assistance. According to a 2012 bill being implemented now that makes a variety of policy changes for California Community Colleges (CCC), low-income college students (including foster youth) will lose access to the tuition fee waiver currently available to them if they are on academic probation for two consecutive semesters.
Taylor says that if she had been placed on academic probation and lost her BOG waiver, she doesn’t think she would have been able to finish up at City College, and continue her education at San Francisco State University, where she is within one semester of graduating.
“I don’t see how it would have been possible financially. I don’t see how that would have happened,” she said.
In January 2011, the California Community Colleges Board of Governors established the Student Success Task Force, which was created to improve the educational outcomes of students and save students and taxpayers money through efficiencies. Those efficiencies included penalizing students who don’t move through their classes in a timely fashion.
In September 2012, The Student Success Act (SB1456) was signed into law. Currently, the Board of Governors is in the process of implementing these provisions, including two that advocates say will negatively impact foster youth.
“These young people are more disadvantaged than even disadvantaged students,” said Amy Lemley, policy director at the John Burton Foundation. “If they do not have this fee waiver, they will not be able to persist. And the small gains we’ve made are going to be lost.”
Advocates contend that one provision — that low-income community college students will lose access to the tuition waiver if they are placed on academic probation for two consecutive semesters — is not appropriate for foster youth, who have a unique set of challenges that need to be taken into consideration.
California is home to one out every five community college students in the country, according to California Community Colleges, the primary backer of the Student Success Initiative. More than a quarter of University of California students start at a community college, and more than half of California State University students start at one.
CCC argues that with declining financial support, the schools must focus resources on students with the best prospects for academic progression.
“If we are forced to ration education, shouldn’t we do it rationally?” is the credo pushed by CCC in a presentation to the American Association of Community Colleges last April.
Advocates for foster youths say the often-turbulent experience of foster care warrants an exception, and want to see foster youths exempted from the new restrictions.
“Young people in foster care are not just another disadvantaged group,” said Lemley. “Will they have the courage to make policy appropriate to different student populations, or will they demand consistency?”
According to Lemley, the annual income of a foster youth at age 21 is $5,45. That’s half the income of a non-foster youth at the same age.
They are also far less likely than their peers to complete high school and enroll and stay in community college. According to a recent study by the Stuart Foundation:
- 45% of foster youth completed high school, compared with 53% of similarly disadvantaged youth and 79% of the general student population;
- 43% of foster youth enrolled in community college, compared with 46% of similarly disadvantaged youth and 59% of the general student population.
- 41% of the foster youth who enrolled in college remained enrolled in community college for a second year, compared with 48% of similarly disadvantaged youth and 62% of the general student population
“We’re pretty much set up for failure,” Taylor said. “The attitude I got coming out of foster care was, ‘Don’t sell drugs, don’t do drugs, don’t kill anybody, or yourself.’ That was all they expected me to do.”
Some child welfare advocates are also concerned about another provision of the Student Success Act, which restricts priority enrollment for foster youth. Foster youth on academic probation for two consecutive would lose their current priority in enrollment and the Act would require foster youths to complete orientation and complete an educational plan before being granted priority enrollment.
Advocates argue that these provisions run contrary to the legislative intent of Assembly Bill 194, a bill written by Jim Beall (D-San Jose) that was signed into law October 2011 and requires California state universities and community colleges to grant priority enrollment for registration to current or former foster youth.
In a letter to CCC Chancellor Brice W. Harris, objecting to the Student Success Act’s foster youth provisions, Beall wrote: “The Board of Governors overstepped its authority in enacting these restrictions,” elaborating that they are “simply unacceptable.”
Lemley says a possible solution would be to create an exemption for foster youth from the provision. The potential for that will likely rest with Senator Alan Lowenthal, who authored the Student Success Act and supported Beall’s AB 194.
She also acknowledged that advocates and child welfare practitioners have not communicated the unique educational challenges of foster youths to leaders in postsecondary education.
“I don’t know if we as a child welfare system have taken the time to educate the chancellors about the needs of children in foster care,” she said. “I think it’s a lack of awareness about the effects of abuse, their academic performance, and the extreme levels of financial insecurity.”
Erica Hellerstein is a Journalism for Social Change Fellow and graduate student in Journalism at UC Berkeley.