Free College for Students With Experience in Foster Care Proposed in California

The College for Foster Youth Act would make debt-free college possible for California residents in the foster care system at any point past their 13th birthday.
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Matthew Arrojas
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Matthew Arrojas is a news reporter at BestColleges covering higher education issues and policy. He previously worked as the hospitality and tourism news reporter at the South Florida Business Journal. He also covered higher education policy issues as...
Published on April 11, 2023
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Raneem Taleb-Agha is a copy editor for BestColleges. Previously, she worked as a bilingual educator in both the U.S. and Spain before transitioning to editing and writing. She holds a BA in Spanish and Near Eastern Studies from UC Berkeley....
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  • A new scholarship for former foster youth aims to increase the graduation rate of those with experience in the foster care system.
  • This bill would allow these students to pursue an associate degree or certificate without taking on debt.
  • It does so by expanding the state's Middle Class Scholarship program.

People with experience in the foster care system may soon be able to earn an associate degree, bachelor's degree, or certificate free of charge in California.

State senators Angelique Ashby and Mike McGuire introduced the College for Foster Youth Act on Feb. 2, and the bill has already passed its first committee hearing. The College for Foster Youth Act would expand the state's Middle Class Scholarship to those with foster care experience to pursue a degree or certificate at any University of California (UC) system school, California State University (CSU) system school, or public community college.

Currently, the Middle Class Scholarship only applies to California residents pursuing a four-year degree.

Students with experience in foster care (SEFC) tend to gravitate toward community colleges. Amy Dworsky, a researcher at Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, said during a webinar hosted by the National Research Collaborative for Foster Alumni and Higher Education that in a sample size of nearly 5,500 SEFC in Illinois, 86% of those who went to college initially enrolled in community college.

The bill would allow these students to extend the scholarship to cover the cost of a bachelor’s degree at any UC or CSU institution.

The College for Foster Youth Act hopes to not only get students into college, but also keep them there long enough to earn a degree or certificate.

Debbie Raucher, director of the John Burton Advocates for Youth's education initiative, told BestColleges that financial obstacles are the most common reasons SEFC don't attain a degree. Covering the cost of tuition through this act, she said, will be the key to bridging the graduation gap.

Graduation rates for SEFC are among the lowest for any student population across the country. Raucher said in California, just 11% of SEFC attain an associate degree by age 23, compared to 36% of all Californians.

She estimates the College for Foster Youth Act could help approximately 4,300 students each year.

Paired with the state's investment in campus-based support programs for SEFC, she hopes to double the graduation rate to 22% if the bill passes, Raucher said.

"This bill isn't happening in a vacuum," she said. "It's building on all the work that's happened in the past."

To qualify for free college under this act, students must have been in the foster care system at any point on or after their 13th birthday, according to the bill. It also removes the work requirement under the Middle Class Scholarship.

The expanded scholarship would cover all costs — including books, food, and lodging — after all other financial aid is applied.

Raucher said SEFC often need to work full time to support themselves through college. This leaves them unable to dedicate their full attention to attaining a degree, which contributes to the low completion rate among these students.

She added that California isn't the first state to propose such a plan.

The FAITH Scholarship in Mississippi covers the total cost of attendance for SEFC in all undergraduate degrees, not just an associate degree. Fostering Independence Higher Education Grants in Minnesota also cover the cost of attendance for all undergraduate degrees.

California's plan is likely to help far more SEFC due to the large population of these students in the state.

Raucher said the College for Foster Youth Act will face some challenges in the state legislature. The state is in a deficit year, so any bill that adds to the budget will be met with skepticism. However, legislators have been receptive to the needs of those with experience in foster care in the past, which is a positive sign.

She gives the bill a 50-50 chance of passing this legislative session.

"I think it's a good chance," Raucher said. "There are other things you see in the legislature that seem dead on arrival; I don't think that's the case with this bill."