Getting Homeless and Foster Youth into College

Last month, before the Senate fell into the disarray of the government shutdown, the Committee on Health, Employment, Labor and Pensions (HELP) kicked off a series of hearings on higher education. The first hearing focused on the system of oversight for colleges and universities across the country

While yet to be scheduled, subsequent hearings will cover issues such as college affordability, student access and financial aid, and will influence the re-authorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA), which governs the disbursement of federal monies to universities and student assistance programs.

This has offered an opening for a growing coalition of homeless and foster youth advocates, who hope to see the comprehensive set of recommendations they are putting forward codified in federal law.

“We need all hands on deck when it comes to these young people,” said Barbara Duffield, policy director at the National Association for the Education of Homeless Children and Youth.

Duffield, who has already corralled 17 national groups including the Alliance for Children and Families and the National Alliance to End Homelessness, is advocating for reform package that would improve outcomes for foster and homeless youth by removing barriers to financial aid, making college more affordable and building up supports for college retention.

One of the recommendations calls for federal programs to better identify, recruit and prepare homeless and foster students for college. This would entail amending the TRIO and GEAR-UP programs — which are both administered by the Department of Education and aim to improve college access and retention of disadvantaged and first generation students — to explicitly include students in foster care and those who are homeless.

“I have certainly heard many [foster] youth say that they didn’t even know college was a possibility,” said Jessica Feierman, a supervising attorney at the Juvenile Law Center, one of the advocacy groups supporting the recommendations. “Unless someone reaches out, they often won’t know they have this option. Including these provisions is extremely valuable.”

Even in a state like California, which is often pointed to as a leader in helping foster youth through high school and onto college, the majority of students in foster care remain woefully underprepared for college.

Only 45 percent will graduate from high school compared to 79 percent of the general student population, according to a report released in May. While three quarters of foster youth in one California survey reported the goal of attending college, national studies have shown that only 3-11 percent will ever receive a bachelor’s degree.

Twenty-year-old Heather Matheson will be one of that small portion of foster youth who do go on to graduate from college. While she is currently a Visual Communication Design major firmly planted at San Francisco State University, she says that college was little more than an abstract idea for much of her time in high school.

“I don’t remember my social workers being that interested in what I wanted to do for college,” Matheson said. “I don’t remember them asking me about it until senior year.”

From the day she was removed from the custody of her biological parents and placed into foster care at 13, until she aged out of the system five years later,  Matheson moved to four different homes. She described two of the placements as “not good fits,” a third as “awful” and the fourth as “great.”

It wasn’t until she started living with her fourth and final foster family that college became a reality. Up until that point her deepest understanding of college were the classes on independent living offered by the Department of Children and Family Services.

“There is a difference between just rattling things off about colleges, and having a realistic conversation about what college means to you,” she said.

During September of her senior year, Matheson’s foster family took her on a college road trip. She wasn’t all that keen on college until she arrived on San Francisco State’s campus, where she immediately felt at home.

Today she is a part of the school’s Guardian Scholars Program, which provides housing, guidance in financial aid, employment opportunities and all around support for State’s foster youth scholars.

In California, as many as 80 campuses boast similar foster youth centered programs akin to the one at SF State.

On the federal level, the Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act of 2008 offered matching federal funds to extend foster care to age 21. Over a dozen states – including California — now offer care past age 18, making it easier for more foster youth to attend college. In addition, as many as 20 states offer tuition waivers to former foster youth to spur attendance at public colleges and universities.

But, students have to get to college to be granted all the benefits that have been put in place for them once they do.

Homeless and foster youth advocates are anxiously waiting for government to get back to work so they can do their part to help more of these unlikely scholars join the college ranks.

Daniel Heimpel is the founder of Fostering Media Connections and the publisher of The Imprint. 

Correction: An earlier version of the story said that Matheson moves schools when she moved homes. In fact she stayed in the same school through her placement changes.

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