Since 2015, California has offered $15 million in community college assistance — including tutoring, transportation and housing support — to kids in foster care who are age 16 to 26.
Senate Bill 12, one of the 859 bills signed into law this session by California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), will expand the reach of that program, which proponents hope will soon become a statewide venture.
The program, called NextUp, may have a big impact for the state’s roughly 62,000 foster youth. It connects current and former foster youth at community colleges with greater resources and personal assistance on campus. Any student between 16 and 26 is eligible. Right now, it is approved for only 10 of the state’s 72 college districts.
SB 12 does not add new money to the current $15 million authorization for NextUp. But in its first two years, the program has not spent the full allotment, and the bill permits an expanded scope that will add another 10 districts.
The bill also streamlines the verification process of foster youth for financial aid purposes, and requires child welfare social workers assign a foster youth’s case plan to an adult responsible for assisting the youth with college and financial aid applications.
With higher-than-average dropout rates, foster youth are often less likely to graduate from college. Only nine percent nationwide earn a bachelor’s degree, although that estimate is sometimes as low as three percent.
“The assumption that success for a foster youth equates to getting a high school diploma and then getting some sort of entry-level job … that’s a very limited notion of success,” says Debbie Raucher, project director at John Burton Advocates for Youth. “In today’s economy, without some form of post-secondary education, it is extremely unlikely that foster youth are going to move on to be truly independent and have sustainable and fulfilling lives.”
A major sponsor of SB 12, John Burton Advocates for Youth issued a 2015 report called Charting The Course, which articulated the many challenges foster youth face when it comes to enrolling in school.
“From that research is how we landed on the provisions of SB 12,” Raucher says, adding that the financial aid process can be so complex that many youth “fall through the cracks.”
There are a number of reasons for that. Sometimes, it’s not clear whose job it is to help these teenagers fill out FAFSA forms. Everybody thinks it’s somebody else’s job, Raucher says, but with SB 12, that problem will be addressed.
Another issue is foster youth have to regularly verify with the school that they are wards of the state, but once these different agencies figure out a process for data exchange, that should make it easier for students.
Still, one of the biggest challenges facing this demographic is housing, which is an especially growing problem at community colleges where it can be incredibly expensive or unobtainable.
“You’re hearing more and more the increase in the number of young adults that are homeless,” Sen. Jim Beall, the Democratic author of SB 12, said in an interview with The Imprint. “Most of them are couch surfers, some of them live in their cars.”
Helping foster youth get a Board of Governors Fee Waiver, Pell Grants, and Cal Grants can help them afford not only rent, but books, child care, referrals to health services, and other related outreach.
NextUp began with Senate Bill 1023, written by Sen. Carol Liu (D), which passed in 2014. It expanded on Assembly Bill 12 (AB 12), the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, signed into law by then Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2010. AB 12 extended the age of eligible foster youth from age 18 to 21, which intended to give foster youth a “safety net” as they moved into adulthood.
Part of AB 12 means the social worker or probation officer must have a plan to ensure their youth meet at least one of five criteria, including working toward completion of a high school degree or enrolling in college. NextUp can give students more specific help by offering job training and tuition assistance, paying for books, school supplies, and even mental health services.
“Anyone in foster care has a reason why they’re there and that reason is never pretty,” Jordyan, a NextUp student, explained in a testimonial video. “What NextUp is, at least for me, is a community on campus that’s there to aid you in your educational goals, but also the biggest context … is an emotional context of like a family environment, somewhere safe for us to be.”
The number of students served by NextUp was about 1,200 last year. It is authorized at up to $15 million a year, but only $8.7 million was spent on NextUp last year.
Although no new money was dispensed for NextUp, the program was expanded to double the number of districts. It is currently available at 26 college campuses in 10 districts. However, there are currently 72 community college districts and 113 campuses in the state. The ultimate goal, said Beall, is to make NextUp a statewide program.
Current evidence of NextUp’s success is anecdotal, according to Paul Feist, vice chancellor for communications at the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.
“In many cases, programs were started from scratch, requiring colleges to begin a search process for staff after learning in December 2015 of their selection,” Feist explained in an email. “As planned, current NextUp programs have been serving more students, expanding the support and services they provide, and increasing the amount of money they spend with every implementation year.”
SB 12 also moved a pending report on the program’s results from 2018 to 2020. In addition to data on retention, transfer, and completion rates for foster youth, the report will include the campus-by-campus basis of the enrollment, including categorical funding of those programs. It will also include recommendations on how to expand NextUp to all community college districts and campuses.
Troy Farah is an independent journalist from California. His reporting has appeared in The Outline, VICE, Fusion and others. He can be followed on Twitter and troyfarah.com