A Tale of Two Students: How State Policy Affects College Access for Foster Youth

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Written by: Emily Parker
Oct. 26, 2016

Foster youth, historically, have low levels of educational attainment. Of the approximate 415,000 youth in foster care, only 46 percent will receive a high school diploma and less than 3 percent will obtain a bachelor’s degree.  In recent decades, policymakers created policies that aim to increase foster youth attainment rates, but the policies are fragmented between federal, state and institution-level – creating a well-intentioned but sometimes disjointed pathway. Because of this, students can have vastly different experiences with access to postsecondary resources based on where they live.

For example, take two students with similar backgrounds and experiences in foster care – Tanya and Justin. They both spent 18 months in foster care, from their 14th birthday through age 15. After that, they were both adopted by their foster families. They are now 18 years-old and it’s near the end of their senior year of high school. Like many high school seniors, they have one huge question looming over them – what’s next?

Tanya lives in Tennessee and wants to go to college next year. She applies and is accepted to the University of Tennessee – her dream school! After researching scholarship options, she discovers the Tennessee HOPE Foster Child Tuition Grant. Because she was in foster care for at least one year after her 14th birthday, meets the minimum high school requirements and has been admitted to a public postsecondary institution in Tennessee, she is eligible for this grant. It will cover her tuition and fees, after all other sources of financial aid have been met. This program is indeed a helpful resource but unfortunately, Tanya will still have to scrape together money or take out loans to cover her room and board, transportation and other living expenses. Tanya enrolls at the University of Tennessee and is well on her way to obtaining a postsecondary degree.

Justin lives in Iowa and has always wanted to be a Hawkeye. Iowa, like Tennessee, also has tuition assistance for former foster youth. The All Iowa Opportunity Foster Care Grant is generous – it covers tuition, fees, room and board, transportation, and personal living expenses for a total award amount of up to $9,010 per year. However, in order to be eligible, applicants either have to “age out” of the foster care system at age 18, or be adopted after the age of 16. Because Justin was adopted at age 15 and did not age out of the system, he is not  eligible for foster youth tuition assistance in Iowa. Even though Iowa has tuition assistance for foster youth, gaps in the eligibility requirements prevent students like Justin, who could potentially benefit from this program from applying.

Even though Iowa’s tuition assistance grant is more generous than Tennessee’s, Tennessee’s program has broader eligibility requirements. While Tanya and Justin may look similar on paper, they are impacted by policy differently because of where they live. Tanya would be eligible for tuition assistance and Justin would not, resulting in different outcomes in higher educational attainment and beyond. This is just one example of the nuanced, and occasionally arbitrary, treatment of foster youth under financial aid policies. To learn more about how state policy can increase access for foster youth in higher education,check out this report from Education Commission of the States: Strengthening Policies for Foster Youth Postsecondary Attainment.

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