Xavier Mountain remembers the last look his adoptive mother gave him before leaving him at a foster youth shelter. It was a look of relief.
Mountain first entered the foster care system at age 2 because his father was an undocumented immigrant and his mother had substance use issues. He was adopted by an elderly couple with “severe conservative views,” as he puts it, “and many of those extremes were physical and mental.”
One day a disagreement turned violent, and Xavier assaulted his adoptive father, leaving him badly injured.
And so, at age 15, Mountain was re-introduced to California’s foster care system. The stress of his situation caused him to struggle academically.
“I was told I wasn’t going to graduate high school and I finally realized to myself that I can’t be a statistic,” Mountain said. “I need to go beyond that.”
He did what it took to graduate on time, but when he turned 18, like many foster youth, Mountain had no support network. Entering community college was far from easy, even with financial help from the Mary Graham Children’s Foundation, located in Stockton. “I’m my own guardian, my own financial support, my own mentor,” he recalled. “If something gets rough, I’m dealing with it on my own.”
He had to focus on finding work and a place to live, so his grades suffered during his freshman year and he lost his scholarship. But eventually he transferred from San Joaquin Delta College to the University of the Pacific. Now 26, Mountain graduated last year and plans to enter law school soon.
He now works at a group home, helping kids like himself, and also serves as a motivational speaker and advocate for John Burton Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit that works to improve California’s child welfare system.
A new bill in the California legislature, Senate Bill (SB) 940, would make it easier for foster youth entering college, like Mountain, by giving them greater access to the Cal Grant, a big source of financial aid to students in California that is rarely used by foster youth. It will extend the enrollment window for current or former foster youth until age 26 — the current cap is one year after high school graduation — and allows students to finish school in eight years instead of four.
Nationwide, roughly half of foster youth will attend college but only 4 percent of former foster youth will earn bachelor’s degrees compared to 36 percent of the same age population of young adults. Only 9 percent of eligible foster youth receive Cal Grants, according to a press release by state Sen. Jim Beall, the bill’s author.
“That disparity right there tells you something — we have to try to eliminate that disparity,” Sen. Jim Beall (D) said in an interview with The Imprint. Beall has penned about 15 other bills related to foster youth, including SB 12, signed into law last year, which expanded community college access for the state’s roughly 62,000 foster youth.
After becoming 18, many foster youth become homeless or end up involved in the criminal justice system. Beall argues this is a high social cost and taxpayer money could be better spent educating these young adults.
“It costs $90,000 to house somebody at a state prison in California per year,” Beall said. “So having somebody get a Cal Grant or some housing assistance or other services supporting them … it seems like a much better investment of the taxpayer’s funds.”
Supporters of the legislation see it as a logical next step for increasing foster youth graduation rates.
“Foster youth are not your traditional students, but a lot of the guidelines and policies are designed for the average college student, so there’s a lot of barriers to them being able to access money that’s there to help them graduate,” said Gina Davis, president and executive director of the Ticket to Dream Foundation, another proponent of SB 940.
But this bill won’t address all of those barriers. After financial aid, housing still remains the biggest obstacle for foster youth in higher education, which Beall hopes to address in the future.
“There’s not enough housing for students — a lot of them end up being homeless,” Beall said. “They’re going to school, they’re homeless, they have a job and it takes them longer to get through school and a lot of them don’t quite make it with those kinds of pressures on them. They have to drop out, go to work full-time or they just can’t make it with all that on top of them at a young age.”
As he prepares for law school, Mountain is hopeful that more foster youth will receive help to pursue their collegiate dreams, particularly from teachers and other adults.
“Not every foster youth has those chances or opportunities like I had,” Mountain said. “We need individuals in the community to believe in us … Because that’s all it takes, is one person.”
Troy Farah is an independent journalist from California. His reporting has appeared in Smithsonian, Undark, Discover, The Outline, VICE, and others. He can be followed on Twitter and at troyfarah.com.