During a packed conference luncheon in Los Angeles on Tuesday, California Community College Chancellor Brice Harris accepted an award from a consortium of foundations, advocacy groups and college-based service centers for foster youth.
Harris, who announced last month that he will be retiring in April, will use some of his remaining time in office to launch a new $15 million program to help foster youth scattered throughout 10 community college districts complete degrees and transfer to four year institutions. This comes on the heels of a similar program being launched in New York state in April, reflecting continued national efforts to support the educational success of foster youth.
Harris, who is an adoptive father and was also a foster parent, told the group in L.A. that the Chancellor’s Office had been committed to foster youth for the past 10 years.
“Beginning in 2006, we created the Foster Youth Success Initiative,” Brice said to applause from roughly 500 conference attendees. “Over the last decade, that group has blossomed with individual liaisons in every campus for teens, serving as a single point of contact for youth.”
That work, philanthropy support and efforts to better track the number of foster youth in the community college system created the momentum needed to expand services with state dollars.
At one of the head tables sat Amy Lemley, the policy director of the John Burton Foundation, the key sponsor behind a 2014 bill which empowered the chancellor’s office to grant money to community colleges that have a plan for improving the persistence rates and academic performance of current and former foster youth students.
“For 10 years, philanthropy has been testing and developing the right approach to supporting youth in college,” Lemley said. “With SB 1023, California now has a permanent source of funding to take what we have learned and expand throughout the state.”
A report released Tuesday by California College Pathways, the group organizing the conference where Harris was honored, points to the unique educational needs of foster youth moving from often-rocky elementary and secondary educational experiences into college. According to the report, only 9 percent of foster youth who started their college career taking a remedial math course would progress to a transfer-level math course within two years, as compared to 17 percent of non-foster peers. In the 2012-13 academic year, just under half the foster youth included in the study were earning a 2.0 grade point average, while three-quarters of their non-foster peers scored C’s or higher.
In an interview after the awards ceremony, Harris said that he was confident that the Community College Board of Governors would ensure that the $15 million Cooperating Agencies Foster Youth Educational Support Program (CAFYES) would be maintained and improved in his absence.
“California can’t succeed if we leave foster youth behind,” Brice said. “Foster youth are a powerful, untapped resource that is really important for the state.”
Across the country, New York is also on the eve of implementing its own, albeit smaller, program to support foster youth. In April of 2015, the state’s 75-member Foster Youth Success Alliance announced the inclusion of a $1.5 million state budget allocation to help foster youth make it through college.