After aging out of foster care and becoming a mother, Andrea Contreras had come to believe college wasn’t for her. The child welfare system hadn’t helped. In most of the foster homes and shelters where she was raised, she said, education wasn’t considered a priority.
But when Contreras told her husband a few years ago that as a former foster youth, she had access to free tuition at Texas public colleges, he encouraged her to take advantage of the opportunity.
“You owe that to yourself,” he told her.
And ever since then, the 25-year-old San Antonio College student said, “I’ve just been at it.”
Overcoming her hurdles, emotional and practical, are no small feat. Findings produced by university researchers in Chicago who have long tracked foster youths’ young-adult trajectory show that in the Midwest fewer than 3% graduate from a four-year university by age 26.
Yet of all states, Texas has long been among the most willing to invest in foster youth interested in going to college, waiving tuition and requiring only minimal conditions of students who enroll with the subsidies. It’s a surprising benefit in a state that has labored for more than a decade under pressure by the courts to improve its beleaguered foster care system.
The tuition waiver program in Texas also has produced results for thousands of budding scholars: Recipients are 3.5 times more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than their foster care peers who attend college with no such support, according to a 2020 study.
Why then, aren’t more young people like Contreras taking advantage? Recent research findings reveal that even in a state with relatively generous tuition benefits available, the help too often doesn’t reach those who could use it. According to researchers at Texas State University and the University of Texas at Austin, 60% of eligible foster youth enrolled in college utilize the tuition waivers.
The remaining 40% face “considerably worse outcomes” due to the lack of financial support, researchers found in a 2020 report, like racking up unnecessary debt and dropping out before earning their diplomas.
Those working with and studying this student population in Texas point to several reasons why. Some simply aren’t informed they can attend college free of charge. For those who are aware, the application process can be onerous and require students to self-identify as having grown up in the child welfare system — a revelation some are loath to disclose.
The Lone Star State is one of 37 states that offer some sort of tuition waiver for youth with foster care experience, and it was among the first to create such a benefit. Lawmakers backed the effort, voting nearly 30 years ago to waive all tuition and fees at public colleges and universities in the state. Today, roughly 3,000 Texas foster youth use the waivers each year.
In contrast, half of the states that offer waivers provide fewer than 50 per year, according to a new report published by the nonprofit groups John Burton Advocates for Youth, Education Reach for Texans and Fostering Academic Achievement Nationwide.
The Texas program stands out for its broad eligibility standards. All youth who age out of foster care or who graduate high school while still in the system are eligible. It can also be used by youth who were adopted from foster care and some who were reunited with their biological families as teenagers. Texas does not require that students maintain a certain grade point average — a standard that can deter those who stumble on their own in the challenging college environment.
There is also no time limit on how long Texas students can take advantage of the waiver program, as long as they first tap into it by age 25. This not only removes the pressure of graduating within a set timeframe, it also gives students the chance to pursue master’s and doctorate degrees.
Last year, the Texas Legislature passed a new law that also allows foster youth to lock in the waiver benefit by participating in the state’s Preparation for Adult Living program, which earns them college credit.
Although Contreras is now studying nursing, she’s considering a switch to psychology to work with foster youth. Despite the seemingly never-ending workload of full-time school and parenting two young children — “a heck of a struggle” — she says she couldn’t be more fulfilled.
“It’s awesome — you have to just take one course and pass one and then it’s locked in for life,” she said.
As established as the program is in Texas, some young people simply don’t know about it, or don’t realize they’re eligible, said Nathalie Riojas, a grant program manager with a program called P.A.T.H., or Partnering, Assisting, and Transforming for Higher Education, at the Alamo Colleges District.
“We’re really trying to make a presence on campus so that we’re catching those students who kind of fell through the cracks and didn’t know about it,” Riojas said. Without it, otherwise-eligible students are racking up unnecessary debt from tuition and fees.
P.A.T.H. advocates spread the word about the tuition waiver through community organizations and presentations at high schools and middle schools. But the benefit needs to be better publicized throughout the state, Riojas said. She suggests informing all foster parents and sending letters home with all high school students, to avoid singling out foster youth. The law that established the tuition waiver mandated the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board to conduct outreach programs to apprise youth of their eligibility.
Another obstacle is the onerous application process, especially for former foster youth who, like Contreras, don’t go straight to college after high school, said Toni Terling Watt, a Texas State University professor whose research focuses on foster youth in higher education.
In order to apply for the waiver, students must obtain a hard copy of a letter from the Department of Family and Protective Services certifying their eligibility, and find the right person on campus to submit it to.
“You’re asking them to go figure out who their old caseworker was, contact Child Protective Services to try to find someone who can give them a form, and then send that form to the university,” Watt said. “It’s hard for the youth to navigate huge complex bureaucracies.”
Watt said advocates at the Education Reach for Texans, where she serves as a board member, are pushing to have the process streamlined and digitized so that it kicks in automatically for eligible students.
For context, she added: “We transfer transcripts and things to universities, we don’t ask people to find their report cards.”
Beyond increasing access to the waiver, advocates and education professionals say more needs to be done to support youth with foster care backgrounds once they get to campus. Watt said preliminary results from research she’s conducting shows that only around one-third of Texas’ universities and colleges have a resource or support program for foster youth.
But where programs do exist, they show promising outcomes.
Riojas’ P.A.T.H. program at the Alamo Colleges District — a network of five community college campuses — was established in 2019 using a $3.5 million government grant. Program staff reach out to students who’ve been in foster care to help them find stable housing, maximize their financial aid and obtain school supplies. Each campus provides a center where students have access to a food pantry, clothing closet, financial advisors and mental health counselors.
At Texas State University, where a resource program has been in place for 10 years, graduation rates among foster youth are on par with the general student population of students 56% of whom graduate, Watt said.
Contreras said the support of the P.A.T.H. program at San Antonio College has been invaluable, providing her not just material resources, like book vouchers, connections to free mental health care and help securing rental assistance for her family, but with mentorship and social support, too. Having her tuition paid made it all possible, she added.
“With my kids, I definitely don’t think I would even have had the opportunity, I wouldn’t really have the money,” said Contreras, who is expecting her third child this year. “With the tuition waiver in place, it makes it way easier to decide to actually take that path.”