A College Diploma Can Open Doors. Now California’s Foster Youth Are Getting Extra Dollars to Help.

The Mercury News | August 3, 2023

By: Elissa Miolene

It’s not quite free, but the state is making higher education more financially accessible than ever for foster youth.

Less than a year into community college, Elizabeth Clews felt like she had reached a breaking point. After five years in the foster care system, the 20-year-old felt like she was completely on her own, balancing a full course load, her 6-month-old son Ezra, and the retail job at Levi’s keeping them both afloat.

Spending too much time at work meant she’d fail her classes. Spending too much time on classes meant she’d lose her job. By the time Clews decided to leave school, she and Ezra were living out of her car — and seven years passed before she felt ready to try again.

This fall, the lives of those like Clews will get a little easier. A new state budget agreement will allocate $25 million a year toward the higher education of foster youth. Although it will not cover full freight — students attending four-year colleges will still have to pay up to $8,000 a year out of pocket — the grants can be used for both tuition and the essentials that are often costlier than classes themselves: housing, food and books.

“I was so excited when I heard about this bill, because I just knew how much this could have helped me,” said Clews, who, at age 28, is now getting her bachelor’s degree in history at UC Santa Cruz. “I would have already graduated by now, and I would have already started my career. I could have saved a lot of time, a lot of frustration, and a lot of heartache.”

The legislation builds on past support for foster youth, a group that ranks near last on almost every educational outcome. Last year, just 61% of California’s foster youth graduated from high school, compared to 87% of their non-foster counterparts. They dropped out of high school at a rate nearly triple that of their non-foster peers, according to state data. And across the country, only 4% of foster youth went on to attend a four-year degree, despite 93% saying they wanted to.

For the 60,000 California youth in the state’s foster care system, the reasons why are obvious. Many bounce from family to family and school to school, shattering the sense of stability that can be critical for both children and teens. That’s what happened to Latrenda Leslie, who entered foster care when she was just 14. The former Oakland resident moved to three homes and three different Bay Area cities during her four years in the system.

It also happened to Clews. After her mother lost custody when Clews was 15, the teenager attended 15 schools in just three years, running away from many. She struggled. And like many foster kids, it showed.

“I always had dreams and aspirations of going to college, but when I ended up in the foster care system, that reality looked a little grimmer,” said Clews. “I didn’t know what the possibilities would be anymore.”

State Sen. Angelique Ashby (D-Sacramento), who pushed the new efforts forward in the legislature, hopes this elevated funding will ease that uncertainty.

“If you can go to a young person who has lost everything … and (say), I know this seems insurmountable, but when you get to 18, here’s something that’s possible for you — that gives them agency and control in a world where everything’s been taken from them,” said Ashby.

It isn’t the first time California has invested in foster youth, 4,000 of whom age out of the system every year. The new budget allocation builds on other layers of financial support, such as $48 million passed last year to help public colleges expand campus-based support for foster youth, and the Pell, Cal and Chafee grants for both low-income and foster students. This additional funding will close the gaps between those efforts, experts say.

“These two things really go hand in hand,” said Debbie Raucher, the director of education at John Burton Advocates for Youth, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. “Now, we’re getting into real, significant change.”

Though the details are still being ironed out, the aim is to have the additional funding automatically embedded into students’ financial aid packages, and adjusted based on each student’s level of need and the estimated cost of living per university. For Leslie, who completed both her associate’s and bachelor’s degrees after exiting the foster care system, that automatic funding would have been game-changing while she was trying to attend Cal State East Bay the first time, before leaving for a community college and following the financial support programs tailored to foster youth wherever she could.

“A lot of us don’t have a family to rely on, for either financial support or mental-health support,” said Leslie, 30, who now lives in San Ramon and works as a housing coordinator at Beyond Emancipation, a nonprofit that supports people in the foster care system. “Foster youth getting this kind of support could unlock a lot of stress and help them show up at their best in their education.”

Despite that, Raucher said, the budget allocation does have a limit. The new funding follows the requirements of an existing state program that requires students attending four-year schools to pay up to $7,898 annually toward their tuition or living expenses. Both Raucher’s team and Senator Ashby’s office plan to continue pushing a bill that would make four-year institutions truly free in the months to come.

At community colleges, the picture is different. The low tuition costs, plus the new financial aid coming from the state, will make attending one of California’s community colleges completely free for foster youth. That’s significant, Raucher said, as 85% of foster youth who go onto higher education do so at a community college — and today, the vast majority of them do not graduate due to financial constraints.

“There’s still more work to be done to ensure that any remaining gaps are addressed,” said Raucher. “But quite frankly, given that the state was facing a $30 billion budget deficit this year, the fact that we saw any increases to financial aid to foster youth is remarkable.”

View this article in The Mercury News.