From Foster Care to College Life

Julee Newberger
March 23, 2001

Growing up in foster care, Adam Cornell didn't think much about going to college. He moved from home to home outside Seattle, Washington, worrying about food, clothing and shelter more than academics. But toward the end of high school, his best friends and a favorite teacher convinced him that he could succeed in higher education.

"College is not something people talk to foster children about," Cornell says. "They don't grow up with that cultural expectation."

Cornell went to law school at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, Oregon. A graduate of Georgetown University, he is one of only 13 percent of kids who age out of foster care and make it through a four-year college. Experts agree that many more kids in foster care could succeed in higher education if they faced fewer barriers.

"College is not something people talk to foster children about ... They don't grow up with that cultural expectation."

 "They are not even expected to succeed academically," Cornell says, "but once we start expecting them to succeed, they will."

As a law clerk at the Juvenile Rights Project in Portland, Cornell helped to author legislation that would provide free tuition for Oregon foster children who go to state schools. Eleven other states already have laws that help kids in care move on to higher education.

"I didn't think about cost too much at the beginning," Cornell says, "which is probably a good thing, because it might have scared me. I went in kind of blindly and put my faith in those people who believed in me."

It Takes More Than Money

Young people making the transition from foster care to independence need more than help with tuition costs. More than 20,000 youth aged 16 and older transition from the foster care system each year. Only 50 percent will have graduated from high school. Over half will be unemployed, and a quarter will be homeless for one or more nights.

The 1999 Foster Care Independence Act gave states more leeway in providing programs to help kids during the precarious period of "aging out." But gaps remain. Many foster youth who enter college do so without reliable access to housing or medical insurance, not to mention family support.

Alfred Perez, who lived in 11 group homes in 4 years, didn't think of himself as a great student, and particularly not as a great test-taker. But thanks to the support of his independent living program in Contra Costa County, California, he applied to college and was accepted.

"I only applied because I knew there were dorms on campus," Perez says, "and I knew if I got in, I would have somewhere to live. I was so afraid of being homeless."

Perez graduated with a 3.7 GPA and only $2,500 worth of loans, thanks to the independent living program that helped him with his financial aid forms.

"Once I decided on the schools I wanted to apply to, the independent living program contacted the schools themselves," Perez says. "I didn't qualify for certain aid because I was working all through high school, so my program made sure that they knew I was a foster youth and my income was temporary. They made sure that I was able to receive full benefits of financial aid," Perez says.

"I only applied because I knew there were dorms on campus ... I was so afraid of being homeless."

A Pell Grant paid for much of his tuition, and his job as a resident assistant took care of housing. Perez worked during the summer to pay for books and living expenses. He also benefited from a program sponsored by a local nonprofit organization and the county department of human services that provides scholarships to youth in transition.

But for many foster youth, applying and reapplying for aid is a struggle. Don Graves, director of the Contra Costa County independent living program, says that filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) itself is the first obstacle. It looks as daunting as an income tax form, and some of the language can be confusing for kids.

"You have to check off 'orphan' or 'ward of the court,'" Graves says. "That signifies you should get more aid. But they're so used to being called foster youth"

David Rippon, formally of the U.S. Dept. of Education says that the government has taken measures to make the FAFSA easier to fill out, such as posting it online. Parents or students who don't have financial aid counselors can call 1-800-4FED-AID for help.

"The kids who are going to have the most difficult time filling out FAFSA and going to college are the kids whose parents didn't go to college," Rippon says. "That group may include foster kids plus others."

Whether or not a student receives financial aid depends on the student's particular situation. Foster youth applying to college should be eligible for Pell Grants, the only federal aid that students do not have to repay. They are also eligible for Stafford Loans, although the amount depends on whether or not the student has income from part-time jobs.

Special Challenges

Many foster youth have moved from school to school throughout their education and find that they have gaps in their learning. They may not be prepared to take on a full course load, which also has impact on their eligibility for financial aid.

Adam Cornell says that many foster youth have not yet learned basic studying skills and time management. "How do you sign up for classes, manage your time, work and go to school when you haven't formed meaningful relationships with people who have already been through it?" Cornell asks.

One foster youth describes the experiences of friends who dropped out of school for a semester or took a summer job and found they were no longer eligible for the same amount of aid upon returning. Other kids do not know they are eligible at all because they don't tell financial aid officers that they were once in foster care.

"They miss out on a lot of money because they think it's stigmatizing," she says. "They say, 'I'm out of the system now, that's behind me.'"

Joan Merdinger, a former professor and now associate Vice President of Faculty Affairs at San Jose State University, surveyed foster youth attending the school. She found that many kids did not want to identify themselves with foster care. "People didn't want to be identified as former foster youths because they'd been so marginalized by their status earlier," Merdinger says.

Merdinger found that foster youth on campus were in dire need of food, housing, financial aid, medical insurance, health insurance and counseling. They did not know about faculty mentoring programs, academic advising, legal counseling services, psychiatric counseling, career planning and other services. To help inform students, Merdinger and her colleagues created a pamphlet about campus services. Rather than addressing the pamphlet to foster youth, they addressed it to first-year students whose parents had not attended college. Merdinger conducted a larger survey of foster youth across California State Universities over the next year.

Programs and Policies

Around the country, programs and policies are beginning to assist foster youth in obtaining a college education. Here is a sample of innovative public and private programs:

  • California State University, Fullerton, in partnership with the county foster care program, offers the Guardian Scholars program for kids who have been in foster care. The program provides tuition, books, year-round housing and faculty mentors.
  • Together with the state department of child welfare, Texas A & M University at Commerce offers a four-year, $1,000 per year scholarship to help pay for room and board for foster youth who qualify. Each student is paired with a faculty or staff mentor and a sponsor family in the community.
  • In Massachusetts, the state department of social services provides state college tuition waivers for foster and adoptive youth.
  • A Connecticut policy enables the Department of Children and Family Services to pay educational expenses—including books, health care and room and board—for foster youth attending college.
  • The Orphan Foundation has given out $1.3 million in scholarships to foster youth in 46 states since 1991. This year, they well give out a total of $1.1 million, thanks to a partnership with Casey Family Programs.

Still, most states do not have legislation or regulations to help foster youth attend college. Eileen McCaffrey of the Orphan Foundation says there is a danger in thinking that piecemeal efforts involving private scholarships and small-scale public programs will ensure that all kids who age out of foster care have a fair chance of going on to college.

Denis Ichikaw, formally a of Casey Family Programs and now Assistant Director of the Human Services Department of Maricopa County, Arizona, agrees. "Tuition is only a small part of the barrier, because most of these children aren't in traditional situations where they have supports from family," Ichikawa says. "Finances are one part of the big picture, which is just getting kids through basic education. What are we going to do to compensate for their lack of support, their living expenses, and a place to go for the holidays?"

For More Information:


Julee Newberger is the former assistant managing editor of Connect for Kids.


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As a financial aid professional, I offer one update to this article.

The Federal Pell Grant is the most common of the Federal financial aid that students don&;t have to repay, but it is not the only. The Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant (SEOG) is a Federal fund given to students with very high need (priority is given to Federal Pell Grant recipients). Funds depend on availability at each college or university. Annual Award Amounts vary from $100 to $4,000.

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Some of the nice things about <a href="http://www.schoolgrantsblog.com/">Pell grants</a> is that the amount of grant money never runs out – the more students apply the more money is allocated, you can be reimbursed for tuition money you’ve already paid, and you can adjust the amount you are applying for in response to changes in financial status.

"They are not even expected to succeed academically," Cornell says, "but once we start expecting them to succeed, they will."

This probably a societal problem more than anything else puts stigma to kids growing in foster homes.

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