A new law signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom extends assistance under the state’s NextUp program
Former foster youth Christina Torrez turned 26 in May. And although she was a first-generation college student pursuing an admirable future after overcoming homelessness, the mother of three hit a new barrier.
Her eligibility for the program that had provided her with everything from the cost of books to bus passes while attending Bakersfield College came to an abrupt end. The state-funded NextUp program only served former foster youth in community colleges through age 25.
“I basically got kicked out,” Torrez said. “When I found out that news, I was devastated due to the fact that I really needed help.”
But beginning this academic year, Torrez and hundreds of students who have grown up in foster care in California won’t face that cut-off assistance. A trailer bill signed last month by Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) removed the age cap for the NextUp program, so students remain qualified as long as they are enrolled in the NextUp program before they turn 26. The funding can be used for a range of services, from academic counseling and tutoring to emergency housing and childcare.
The change will make all the difference for Torrez, who first entered foster care at age 6. She enrolled in community college at 18, but — like all too many former foster youth — she became homeless shortly thereafter. School at that point was no longer an option.
Determined not to give up on her studies, Torrez attended college off and on when she could, balancing school with local government and restaurant jobs while caring for her three kids, now 10, 6 and 5. The NextUp program has provided her with transit passes that helped her get to and from campus without a car. And when she lost her job as a cashier at Carl’s Jr. at the start of the pandemic, a small grant helped her through an otherwise desperate circumstance.
“I was on the verge of losing my housing,” she said. “I wasn’t able to pay my rent, and I wasn’t able to pay my light bill. With that grant that I got from the NextUp program, I was able to keep going.”
The state budget passed earlier this year included a $30 million increase over last year’s funding for NextUp, bringing the total annual funding to $50 million and expanding it to additional college campuses. In September, the age cap was removed, addressing a lingering issue for many older students, said John Burton Advocates for Youth Director of Education Debbie Raucher.
“Just as they are getting so close to graduation, suddenly all of their services are cut off just because they turned 26,” she said. “And that doesn’t make any sense if we want to move the needle on improving outcomes for foster youth.”
California community colleges host more foster youth than other university systems. But these students face numerous challenges as they work to complete their degrees due to lack of familial support, housing costs and the difficulty of working and studying at the same time. A 2021 study published in the Journal of the Society for Social Work and Research documented these widely known difficulties, finding that foster youth are more likely to withdraw from school due to work obligations, and less likely to graduate than their low-income and first-generation peers.
But NextUp appears to help, by offering financial support that can be used for books, transportation or small grants in an emergency. Students with similar backgrounds and challenges are linked through the program as well, providing peer support. A report released last year by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office found that students in the program were more likely to complete core classes than other foster youth in college who were not given similar assistance. NextUp students were also less likely to drop out.
Building on philanthropic investments, the program was first funded by the state at 10 community colleges in 2014 and has since expanded to 46 campuses, serving roughly 2,100 students a year. Originally, it was only available to young people who had been in foster care on their 16th birthday. But following passage of Senate Bill 512 in 2021, the program opened up to any person who spent at least one day in foster care past age 13, an adjustment that nearly doubled the number of eligible recipients, according to John Burton Advocates for Youth. What’s more, NextUp had previously required students to carry at least nine units. It now allows students to participate in the program if they have a plan to take nine units in the future.
Flexibility is key to helping former foster youth succeed in college, advocate Raucher said. Students may need to retake classes, vary their number of units depending on their life circumstances, or take time off to work or to care for children. Students can access the program if they previously left school and have re-enrolled, or if they’ve delayed enrolling after high school or after aging out of foster care.
“When they’re venturing out on their own, the idea of doing anything but working full time is nerve-wracking,” Raucher said. “They feel like they need to just get to work because they need to support themselves and not become homeless.”
But that can change over time, she added. “After they’ve been in the work world for a while, they’ll often get to a point where they realize that there’s only so far they can go without some additional education.”
Torrez agreed, saying said that former foster youth like herself often need help long after their time in government care comes to an end at age 21 — including housing, substance abuse prevention services and mental health treatment.
“The system expects us to be okay when we’re not OK, because we’re dealing with all this trauma that we endured while being in the system,” she said.
Torrez, who is studying political science and sociology at Bakersfield College, said she will be the first in her family to earn a college degree once she graduates later this year. More important, though, is the message she wants to impart to her three children.
“I want to teach them that you can do whatever you want, as long as you put your mind to it,” Torrez said. “No matter how long it takes, no matter how much struggles or no matter what you’re going through, you can still succeed.”