California’s foster students, for the first time ever, have surpassed high school peers in applying for federal student aid.
The milestone is considered significant because just completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, can put a foster student on a path for college, informing the student of how much aid to expect but also alerting prospective colleges of the student’s needs.
This past academic year, 64.5% of 2,582 high school seniors in foster care submitted a FAFSA, compared to 56.6% of all high school seniors in the state, according to John Burton Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit organization that advocates and supports homeless and foster youth.
The high rates among foster youth applications can be attributed to the FAFSA Challenge created three years ago by John Burton Advocates for Youth. The challenge, which ended March 2, encourages county offices of education to partner with high school counselors, probation officers, social workers and the California Student Aid Commission to help foster youth apply for federal and state student aid.
“We’re really proud,” said Debbie Raucher, director of education for the nonprofit. “We’ve seen real progress over the course of three years, and probably the most essential element is that we were able to work with CSAC (California Student Aid Commission) to get access to … a system that allows us to look up who has completed a FAFSA. And who hasn’t.”
Students seeking state or federal financial aid must complete a FAFSA, which requires reporting a student’s or family’s income.
“It’s important for us as educators and people who love these kids to help them see a better future than what they can envision for themselves,” said Melanie Bridges, the coordinator of foster youth services at Riverside County Office of Education. “We have to encourage them to take that leap of faith and fill out that FAFSA.”
One of those applicants, 17-year-old Tobias Herrera, said he wasn’t aware of how much aid he could receive until a counselor at Palmdale High School in Los Angeles County contacted him about being a foster youth.
“I knew FAFSA was just free money, but I didn’t know a lot of people actually got it,” he said. “I thought I had to go through some grueling process for a couple of thousand bucks to pay for books.”
Herrera, whose grandparents are his foster parents, didn’t learn until that moment that he had been in foster care since age 15. While he lived with his grandparents, he wasn’t aware they legally were also his foster parents. His counselor encouraged him to indicate his foster youth status on the FAFSA, which opens up more aid and opportunities for him this fall when he attends Antelope Valley College, a community college which is offering most courses remotely. Herrera will receive the full Pell Grant award of $6,345.
“My granddad doesn’t make a lot of money, and I feel he shouldn’t have to worry about paying hundreds of dollars for books or lunch passes,” Herrera said, referring to expenses that can be covered with his financial aid.
Melanie Bridges, the coordinator of foster youth services at Riverside County Office of Education, said that the connection to the student aid commission’s system allowed her office and counselors to pinpoint the foster youth who didn’t apply, and if they did, verify that their applications were processed correctly.
The nonprofit created the challenge after a 2015 study found a significant gap in the number of foster youth receiving a Cal Grant or Pell Grant and those receiving the California College Promise Grant, then called the California Community Colleges Board of Governors fee waiver. The study revealed that in 2013, only 9% of foster youth received a Cal Grant, 50% received a Pell Grant and 85% received the BOG fee waiver, despite the fact that “most foster youth receiving a BOG fee waiver would likely have sufficient financial need to qualify for a Pell Grant as well.”
Unlike the fee waiver, Pell and Cal grants can help students pay for living expenses such as housing, books and transportation.
“We found it came down to the FAFSA and foster youth not getting through the application process,” Raucher said. “Some foster youth didn’t know FAFSA was something to fill out. Others didn’t know where to start or got stuck and didn’t have the support to complete it.”
Not filling out the application can be a barrier to completing college. Students could be missing out on thousands of dollars of aid that helps them stay in college by not completing an application, she said.
In California, 85% of foster youth say they aspire to go to college, but by age 26, fewer than 8% nationally achieve a bachelor’s degree, compared to 46% of the general population. There isn’t accurate data available of how many California foster youth graduate with a degree, Raucher said.
But the FAFSA challenge encouraged counties to focus their efforts and give special attention to foster youth. This year, Shasta and Trinity counties tied at 100% foster youth completion rate among “very small counties,” Kings County reached 94% in the “small county” category, Fresno County had 94% completion rate for “medium county,” and Riverside County had a 78% completion rate for “large county.”
Filling out the FAFSA as a foster youth also helps colleges identify those students and offer them more support and financial aid, such as the NextUp program in community colleges or the Guardian Scholars Program in California State University and University of California systems. Both NextUp and Guardian Scholars programs provide counseling, mentoring, scholarships and other resources for foster youth in the state’s public colleges.
Herrera, for example, received a California Chaffee Grant because he completed a financial aid application and identified himself as a foster youth. The grant offers students in foster care between ages 16 and 18 up to $5,000 a year for college or career training.
“It’s never just about the FAFSA, which is what I like about the FAFSA challenge,” said Jason Haley, project specialist for Tulare County Office of Education’s foster youth services, referring to how the application helps connect foster youth to other services and grants they can access in college. Tulare County’s FAFSA completion rate for foster youth this year was 93%. “It’s about helping identify foster youth, and it begins the conversation between schools and counselors about youth. Now we’re talking about readiness for college or the youth’s plans after high school.”
It’s a conversation that’s often difficult to initiate with high school counselors who can be overwhelmed, and foster youth who can be reluctant to talk about their needs, Haley said.
But Bridges said more work could be done to get more counties to 100% completion.
“The foster youth population is very transient,” she said. “It’s a challenge to keep track of them because of the delay in (state) reporting and frequent moving.”
Some foster youth change high schools five times just in their senior year, Bridges said. Among California students in foster care for less than one year, 17% were enrolled in three or more schools, according to a 2016 report from the Stuart Foundation, which supports improving the lives of young people through education. Among students who have been in foster care for three or more years, 6% attended three or more schools in an academic year.
Bridges said a statewide tracking system would be helpful. She also urges that a day be set aside in October for the entire state to encourage high school seniors in foster care to fill out the FAFSA. Unfortunately, youth lacking a support system to help them understand how to fill out the form may not do so.
Raucher said the nonprofit doesn’t want the FAFSA challenge to be tied to any one organization, which is why they’re advocating for legislation that would institutionalize the approach. Senate Bill 860, which passed the state Senate in June and is now in the Assembly, would improve FAFSA completion rates among foster youth by providing more funding to foster youth services in county offices of education to create programs that ensure foster youth complete the financial aid forms.
“One of the remaining challenges we have as a system is that there is no point person to support foster youth during the summer for that high school to college transition,” Raucher said. “That’s a gap we have to figure out, but getting the FAFSA done is a huge piece of it.”
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