Abbe Desai wants to be a teacher or maybe a flight attendant someday. At age 19, she’s still trying to figure it out. But while her future career is undecided, her path to get there, starting at Ridgewater College in central Minnesota, is all mapped out, and — as is the case for many of her peers raised in foster care — it’s a long and difficult journey.
Desai takes classes in both global studies and liberal arts to keep her options open. She also works full time, cobbling together two jobs as a home health aide and delivery person for Instacart and DoorDash as she earns enough credits to transfer to the University of Minnesota, where she hopes to earn a bachelor’s degree.
But it will take her longer than four years, largely due to the cost. As a former foster youth, Desai
A bill being considered in the Minnesota Legislature would acknowledge heavy burdens like Desai’s, and provide the state’s first-ever comprehensive support for students who are former foster youth. The Fostering Higher Education Grants Act would provide grants for foster youth to attend public or private colleges and universities in the state for free.
Several states have some kind of program to waive tuition for students who were in foster care and the federal government also offers assistance. If it passes by this summer, the Minnesota program could be among the most comprehensive in the country, providing grants through the state’s Office of Higher Education for up to five years of higher education costs, including tuition and room and board. Those eligible must have left foster care at age 13 or older.
Desai has testified in front of the Minnesota House and Senate advocating for the bill’s passage because of how much she could have been helped by such support. Although she was accepted to state colleges, including her school of choice the University of Minnesota, she chose community college because she simply couldn’t afford a four-year school.
“I wasn’t really in the position to be able to pay $10,000 for school,” she said. “If this bill had already been passed, then I would right away have started at the U of M.”
College graduation rates for former foster youth like Desai are abysmally low compared to their peers, and their chances of going to college diminish well before they turn 18. About a third of 17- and 18-year-olds in foster care have changed schools five or more times, according to a 2018 report by the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education, making it difficult to keep up with schoolwork. Most want to go to college but have few, if any, resources or support once they age out of the system. For most, the cost is prohibitive and the process of applying for schools and financial aid alone is overwhelming. According to the report, between 3% and almost 11% of students who’ve grown up in foster care will end up earning a bachelor’s degree, compared with 32% for all students nationally.
Twenty-eight states currently offer foster youth financial assistance for higher education, including Minnesota. Hoang Murphy, the founder and executive director of the St. Paul-based Foster Advocates, said he doesn’t think Minnesota should be counted in that list just yet, however.
Murphy, whose organization worked with the Legislature on the Fostering Higher Education Grants Act, said the bylaws of the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system allow chancellors to waive the tuition of students who’ve been in foster care, but that ability is not always known, or acted upon. And if the chancellors don’t know that financial support is available, Murphy noted, how would the foster youth?
In seeking a better support system for foster youth bound for college in Minnesota, Murphy researched the offerings in other states. He said most don’t offer full tuition waivers, or if they do, it comes with requirements. In Connecticut, for example, students have to pay a fee or perform community service to have their school fees fully paid. Murphy said the Minnesota program now being considered would offer the most comprehensive support to foster youth of any similar program in the nation, with “all the benefits of the Connecticut program but none of the restricting factors.”
The bill has received broad support from both Republicans and Democrats in the state House and the Senate, as well as the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system and the Minnesota Private College Council. Private schools can choose to opt out, but for those participating, the state will pay up to the same amount in tuition they would offer to public school students, and the private school would then pay the rest.
Paul Cerkvenik, the president of the private college council, said there was no resistance among the schools in their organization. “It’s one piece of a broad puzzle of how we help more students succeed in higher education,” Cerkvenik said. “This is an important solution for a particular group of students who are underrepresented in higher education.”
Senator Jason Rarick (R) sponsored the Senate version of the bill and said that despite the added costs in higher education spending, he sees it as the state’s responsibility to those aging out of the foster care system. Roughly $3.7 million is earmarked for the grant in 2023 out of a total higher education budget of $273 million.
“Once they turn 18, once they leave the system, they’re kind of out on their own and they sometimes don’t have someone to go home to,” Rarick said. “We’ve taken them into the state under our wing when we put them in the foster care system and it just seemed like the right thing to me to give them that help.”
State Rep. Kaohly Vang Her, a member of Minnesota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, sponsored the companion bill in the House. She sees it as a preventive measure to keep former foster youth out of prisons or other state institutions. “We either choose to invest in people in the front end or we have to invest in them in the back end,” she said.
Her added that her husband, whose family were refugees from Laos living in Wausau, Wisconsin, lost both of his parents at a young age and lived with relatives and on his own for several years. Against the odds, he went on to graduate from college and was the first in his family to do so. But Her said she knows that is not the norm for people who had similar childhoods, and she wants all young people to have that same chance.
The bill calls for the Office of Higher Education to correct another widespread problem — lack of information about the help that’s available. Under the pending legislation, former foster youth would be notified about their eligibility for state and federal grant funding as well as education and training vouchers. But it won’t address all of the logistical challenges foster youth face when applying for college.
Travis Matthews, an 18-year-old living in foster care in northern Minnesota, is finishing up his senior year of high school. Matthews plans to attend Hamline University next year, a private university in St. Paul, to study political science and law, with a focus on reforming the juvenile justice system. He received financial aid, but not enough to cover all costs.
“I’m going to have to take out loans, and I am trying to figure out how to pull it off alone without co-signers,” Matthews said. “Anybody can be a co-signer, but some random person is not just going to willingly co-sign. That’s a big commitment, and that’s typically what parents or grandparents will do. Most of the time foster kids don’t have that.”
They also often lack emotional support needed to get through the rough transition to independent life. Anthony Walsh, a senior policy associate at The Century Foundation who has researched affordability challenges for foster youth in college, said he finds the Minnesota bill promising. But he’s skeptical about how it will help students stay in college, given that one of the requirements for the financial aid is that students maintain “satisfactory academic progress.”
“How do you make sure they stay up to that certain standard?” Walsh said. “You have to make sure they’re doing well in the head and they’re not in a bad place. We know how tough school gets. We’ve all probably made calls to our parents or our primary providers in college, and a lot of these kids don’t have that opportunity.”
With the cost of higher education rising, however, the financial support offered in the Fostering Higher Education Grants Act will go a long way, and Walsh said it’s a step in the right direction.
For Desai, free college tuition and room and board would have simplified — and shortened — her current plan for attaining a bachelor’s degree. And it would be one less hurdle for her to jump.
“It is really difficult to figure things out and afford things when you’re entering adult life in general, but especially for a foster kid,” she said. “I support this bill because it’s going to give support to fosters that they don’t have because they don’t have a family to lean on for anything.”