During her senior year of high school, Madelyne Yang sat down with her counselor to strategize about college applications. Together, the pair identified Augsburg University, a private institution in Minneapolis, as a viable option for Yang.
The school was a good fit for a number of reasons: the liberal arts education, the breadth of academic programs and its campus, located in the heart of the city.
But above all, Augsburg is one of dozens of Minnesota colleges participating in a grant program that covers the cost of college for young adults who were in the child welfare system at age 13 and later.
Yang, who was in foster care from ages 13 to 18, was eligible.
“I’ve always wanted to go to college, but the only problem was the financial part of it,” she said.
In its inaugural year, the state’s Fostering Independence Grants provided funding to nearly 500 young Minnesotans like Yang, according to data from the state’s Office of Higher Education. The money can be used to cover tuition, fees, room and board and other living expenses.
The program is backed by $3.8 million in state funds and provides the “last dollar” needed for college attendance, covering any additional payments after all other financing sources have been tapped.
Students can apply for the grant by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, or an application for the Minnesota Dream Act. Eligible applicants must be 26 or younger and have spent time in foster care after age 13.
Some eligible foster youth have had their financial aid covered through other programs, such as the Pell Grant. But state figures show that in the 2022-23 academic year, more than 1,200 students were also eligible to receive funds from Fostering Independence Grants.
Approved by the Minnesota state Legislature in 2021, the grants aim to alleviate the financial burden for those who have grown up in foster care and lack parental guidance and financial support at a key stage of their young adult lives.
Despite research indicating a vast majority of foster youth aspire to attend college, just 3% to 11% nationwide earn a bachelor’s degree, according to a 2018 report by the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education. Studies have found financial difficulties, housing instability and the need to work are among the barriers that prevent foster youth from pursuing a college degree.
Nationally, an estimated 37 states offer either tuition waivers or scholarships for foster youth, according to a report by three leading youth advocacy organizations: Fostering Academic Achievement Nationwide network, Education Reach for Texans and John Burton Advocates for Youth.
Eligibility criteria differ from state to state, including age limits for program participation, and the minimum amount of time spent in foster care. States also cover different amounts of tuition assistance and have varying caps on the numbers of students who can be helped.
Beyond Financial Support
Having wrapped up her first year of college, Yang is one of 12 Augsburg students who received a Fostering Independence Grant, along with extra support from the university through its Augsburg Family Scholars, a program aimed at narrowing the opportunity gap for students with foster care backgrounds.
Students get help moving to campus and a $300 gift card to outfit their dorm rooms and living spaces. They also have access to guaranteed year-round housing, a laptop and help navigating food and medical assistance programs. A dedicated lounge provides a space where students can grab a snack, mingle with their peers or do homework. Students can also receive academic mentoring and support to explore research and graduate school opportunities.
“If you’ve made it this far, it’s our responsibility to help students finish the job and get a degree.”— Tim Pippert, Augsburg Family Scholars
The extra support is much needed, Yang said.
“It just feels welcoming and it feels like you’re less alone,” she said. “I don’t really come across many fosters, and specifically not in college, so it’s really nice to know that I’m not the only foster going to school.”
While the state grants are a “game changer,” they aren’t enough on their own, said Tim Pippert, executive director of Augsburg Family Scholars and a sociology professor at Augsburg University. That’s why his program supplements the Fostering Independence Grants with academic support and opportunities for students to build community on campus.
“If you’ve made it to college, you’ve overcome so many hurdles already because the percentage of folks who age out of foster care with college degrees is really horrible,” Pippert said. “If you’ve made it this far, it’s our responsibility to help students finish the job and get a degree.”
If students are struggling academically or are unable to keep up with their course load, Pippert helps students strategize about the best ways to reach out to professors about the challenges they’re facing.
That support is critical for those unprepared to navigate the demands of higher education, he said, adding that the educational experiences of young people in the child welfare system is often sporadic, defined by multiple moves and disruptions.
“If you don’t have that social capital,” he said, “what do you do when you run into a problem or fail a test? It’s so easy to give up if you don’t know — that actually happens to a lot of students.”
Spreading the Word
Minneapolis Community and Technical College has conducted outreach for the grant program, hosting information sessions and reaching out to more than 300 former students who had dropped out of school but are eligible to re-enroll with the additional financial support. In 2023, the school had 32 students receiving Fostering Independence Grants, the largest number reported by institutions statewide.
“There’s a reason why students stopped out, whether it’s external responsibilities or academic struggles or personal struggles or financial obstacles,” said Heidi Aldes, dean of enrollment management at Minneapolis Community and Technical College. “So the other piece was not just, ‘hey, come back,’ but ‘hey, come back and here’s how we can support you.’”
For the upcoming academic year, Aldes hopes to expand the school’s outreach efforts and focus on increasing the likelihood of success for those who enroll.
More proactive measures are needed to make students aware of the grant, said Kristy Snyder, director of the Twin Cities Opportunity Network.
“The next step is thinking about how do we do advertising and more proactive, clear communication,” Snyder said.
Students are typically notified of their eligibility for the Fostering Independence Grant after they’ve completed the federal student aid, or FAFSA application. But earlier notification is needed, so sophomores and juniors can start to plan for college, she added.
To understand what roadblocks young people may encounter, Augsburg University and Minneapolis Community & Technical College are developing focus groups to learn more about young people’s experiences with the grants. The groups, expected to kick-off in the fall, will focus on eligible students currently enrolled in college, students who didn’t continue their education and those who never enrolled.
“There’s just so many potential students that college isn’t on their radar because they don’t think it’s an option,” Pippert said.