California Looks to Expand Financial Aid Access for Foster Youth

A California legislator is looking to amend the state’s college aid program for foster youth so it covers more students and loses fewer of them to academic problems.

The Chafee Education and Training Voucher (ETV) is a federal-state match program that provides up to $5,000 per year to current or former foster youth to help with the costs of college. Introduced by State Sen. Jim Beall (D), Senate Bill 150 would shift the way ETV grant payments are distributed and set unique ground rules for foster youth around academic eligibility.

“For foster youth, losing financial aid is a one-punch knockout that can impact housing stability as well as educational progress,” former foster youth Ashley Stone wrote last year in The Imprint.

Currently, the California Student Aid Commission (CSAC) makes initial ETV awards based on the amount of state and federal funds allocated in the budget. The state spends just under $20 million on the program – $13.6 million in state funds, plus $5.6 million in federal dollars, according to Debbie Raucher, a project director for education initiatives with John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY).

Schools must verify that the awardees are still enrolled and eligible – typically, Raucher said, only about half of the initial candidates are by the time the awards are made. Beall’s bill would permit CSAC to approve more awards than the budget allows, with the expectation that many recipients won’t end up taking it. This prevents a waiting list of youth who don’t hear about ETV eligibility until right before or even during the semester.

“There are students who don’t receive their awards until after the school year is over because that recycling process takes so long,” Raucher said. The bill would allow CSAC to “over-award” by two times the budgeted number of slots starting in the 2021-22 academic year.

SB 150 would also require schools to factor in the unique circumstances of foster youth when academic performance jeopardizes their ETV grant.

Like all federally funded student aid packages, Chafee ETV recipients are required to maintain Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP). Each school has their own SAP policy, generally including a minimum GPA and course load, which applies to everyone receiving federal aid. Failing to meet the standard means termination of the funds.

As Stone wrote in The Imprint last year, “SAP is often a one-way ticket out of college,” pointing to a report that found one in five foster youth in transitional housing programs had lost their financial aid this way.

SB 150 would amend schools’ SAP policies to take into account foster youths’ specific challenges — and heightened stakes — and prevent schools from imposing additional requirements on Chafee recipients.

“I had recently had a death in the family and was working 32 hours a week,” Stone shared about the circumstances she was facing when she lost her financial aid due to an SAP slip-up. “I was about to turn 21 and age out of the foster care system, which meant losing my housing. Without financial aid, how would I pay for college tuition and fees, along with my many other expenses including rent, groceries, gas, books and utilities?”

Under the proposed legislation, any ETV recipient who fails to meet their institution’s SAP requirements for two years loses eligibility – but they have an opportunity to appeal. The school is required to reinstate their eligibility if the student “demonstrates the existence of an extenuating circumstance that impeded successful course completion in the past,” or if they are working to address their barriers through engagement with a “supportive program.”

Additionally, youth who take at least one term away from school after losing Chafee funds would be automatically eligible again when they re-enroll, as long as they’re still under 27.

This bill is the latest in a series of moves from California legislators to expand access to Chafee ETV and other financial aid sources for foster youth.

In 2016, the Higher Education Outreach and Assistance Act for Foster Youth required state universities and community colleges to provide an opportunity on applications for students to self-identify as foster youth and automatically direct those youth to specialized resources.

In 2018, AB 3089 expanded the maximum eligibility age from 23 to 26, recognizing the non-linear progress common among foster youth with histories of academic disruption. The 2018 budget added $4 million in general fund dollars for Chafee grants and set aside $5.3 million in the Cal Grant state scholarship program for foster youth.

John Burton Advocates for Youth, a sponsor of the bill along with the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, is hosting a webinar Feb. 7 to outline the specifics of the law and discuss advocates’ next steps for pushing passage.

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