Raising Chafee ETV Eligibility to 26 Could Be a Risky Play

Just before Congress shut down the federal government, Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) proposed a bill that would make a slew of changes to federal policy in regards to older foster youths, particularly those on a course to age out of foster care.

One of those changes is a significant eligibility expansion for the Chafee Educational Training Vouchers program, a matching-funds partnership with states that currently provides up to $5,000 per year to college students who have aged of foster care.

As is, students are eligible for Chafee funds up to the age of 23. Under Hatch’s “Outcomes for Youth At-Risk for Sex Trafficking Act,” students who are 24, 25 and 26 would also be eligible for the grants.

Is that a good plan? There was not an immediate exultation from foster care advocates, which suggests two things:

1) It wasn’t pushed to Hatch’s staff from the national advocacy community. Perhaps Hatch lifted the idea from his own home state, which offers the Olene Walker Transition to Adult Living Scholarship to aged out youths up until age 26.

2) The jury’s still out on what such a change would mean. “Folks are all assessing…the intricacies of the bill: source of funding, how it is spread, limitations on residential,” said John Sciamanna, the chief operating officer of the National Foster Care Coalition.  “So folks are reviewing.”

Michael McPartlin, who coordinates the Guardian Scholars program for former foster youths at City College of San Francisco, said an expansion to 26 “recognizes the longer road many foster youth alumni must go down to acquire the education they need to compete in today’s work world. “

“It is not unusual for a student to take up to five years to address English and Math remediation plus general education and major,” said McPartlin, in an e-mail to Youth Services Insider. “If that person takes a year or two…to be stable enough to attend college, then their Chafee ETV eligibility is greatly reduced under the current age cut-off of 23.

But the support of both Californians for the spirit of the change is not unconditional. It is unclear in the bill whether Hatch intends for the allotment of funds for ETV to increase with the expanded age eligibility.

Without a proportional increase in funds for ETV, the Hatch law would implicitly instruct states to spread the funds over a larger number of students; perhaps thousands more in highly populous states.

In states like Iowa, where all ETV applicants have consistently received grants with funds to spare, this might not be a problem. But in a state like California, where many ETV hopefuls are turned away each year for lack of funds, it could turn an already trickling stream into a nearly dry creek bed.

“With 1,000 or more eligible students in our State NOT receiving funds under the current age cut off guidelines (roughly 1/3rd of eligible students), increased demand without increased funding will render this program meaningless” in California, McPartlin said in his e-mail.

And with California’s current policy of prioritizing current ETV students over new applicants, the losers in an expansion to 26 will be teenagers entering college, said iFoster Executive Director Serita Cox, whose organization secures discounted goods and services for current and former foster youths.

“If this does go into effect and a state like [California] continues to implement ETV along their current lines, we’ll have even less freshmen and sophomores receiving funding,” Cox said. “And I would argue that if we want to meaningfully move the needle on those earning their bachelor’s degree, having funds for those freshmen and sophomores is more important than a 26-year-old on their graduate degree.”

It is worth noting that the Hatch bill does limit any one student’s ETV eligibility to five years. But even if the Hatch bill did authorize more money for ETV, it wouldn’t necessarily come through, especially in this fiscal climate.

ETV is a discretionary grant program, unlike its larger counterpart, the $140 million-per-year Chafee Independent Living Program (ILP).

The ILP program is slated for a long-lobbied-for increase of $440 million. But unless Hatch proposes to bring ETV into that mandatory structure, the college grants are susceptible to year-to-year changes at the whim of Congressional appropriators, while the ILP program is automatically funded subject to an actual change in law.

The annual spending for ETV has ranged from a peak of $46 million in 2005 to a low of $38 million in 2011, according to Fedspending.org. That money is parsed out to states by population, and states much match 20 percent or more of the money.

With uncertainty on the appropriations front, it may be that the only way to responsibly expand ETV eligibility is to peg eligibility each year to the previous year appropriations. For example:

  • $45 million or less: Only students between age 18 and 23 would be eligible
  • $46-50 million: 24 year-olds added
  • $51-55 million: 25-year-olds added
  • $56 million and above: 26-year-olds added

Youth Services Insider is mostly written by Chronicle Editor-in-Chief John Kelly

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