FAFSA Form Now a Prompt for Foster Youth Assistance

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known by its acronym, FAFSA, will now lead to notifications for current and former foster youths about educational assistance programs. And it was a former foster youth, who came to Washington for a summer internship, that started the ball rolling.

The FAFSA form already has a box that current and former foster youth are encouraged to check, which excuses them from the sections of the form that address parental income. The omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year for 2014 includes instructions for the Department of Education to use that box as a prompt for more.

The department is instructed to utilize the box as “a tool to notify students who are foster youth or were in the foster care system of their potential eligibility for Federal student aid, including post-secondary education programs through the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program and any other Federal programs under which such students may be eligible to receive assistance.”

The Chafee independence program offers support services and housing assistance for youths transitioning out of foster care. A second component, the Educational and Training Vouchers program, offers up to $5,000 per year for current and former foster youths attending college.

The idea to use FAFSA as a trigger for information started with Maurissa Sorenson, who participated in the Foster Youth Intern program. The program, overseen by the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute, places foster youths into internships in Congressional offices and culminates with a collection of policy briefs written by the interns.

Sorenson, who interned for former Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chose to focus on the FAFSA form, which she believed could be conduit of information to foster youths about financial assistance.

From Sorenson’s brief from the 2012 report Hear Me Now:

“When I started community college, I was asked to fill out the FAFSA form, which included checking a box stating that I was a foster youth. I now understand that the purpose of this box is to separate out youth who will not be able to comply with the sections of the form that address parental income.

I spent more than seven years in community college and filled out the FAFSA form each year. Unfortunately, during this time, no one from the federal government ever used this information that I was a foster youth to bring attention to the U.S. Department of Education that I was a student who may need additional resources and supports.”

Kerry acted on the recommendation that December, introducing the Foster Youth Higher Education Opportunities Act. The bill never moved, and Kerry left Congress to become Secretary of State.

Three colleagues – Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Mary Landrieu (D-La.) – got the language into the 2014 spending bill, which was signed in January.

Last week, Education Secretary Arne Duncan confirmed that the FAFSA form would be modified by next year so anyone identifying as foster youth would be notified of aid opportunities.

Sorenson is a graduate student at the University of Southern California School of Social Work. She is also a board member for the Southern California Foster Family and Adoption Agency.

John Kelly is the editor-in-chief of the Chronicle 

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