A college diploma can open doors. Now California’s foster youth are getting extra dollars to help

Elizabeth Clews felt she had reached a breaking point less than a year into community college. The 20-year-old felt completely on her own after five years in the foster care system, juggling a full course load, her 6-month-old son Ezra, and the retail job at Levi’s that kept them both afloat.

She would fail her classes if she spent too much time at work. She would lose her job if she spent too much time on classes. Clews and Ezra were living out of her car by the time she decided to leave school, and it took her seven years to feel ready to try again.

The lives of people like Clews will be made a little easier this fall. A new state budget agreement will allocate $25 million per year to foster youth higher education. Although it will not cover the full cost of attendance — students attending four-year colleges will still have to pay up to $8,000 per year out of pocket — the grants can be used for tuition as well as the necessities that are often more expensive than the classes themselves: housing, food, and books.

“I was so excited when I heard about this bill because I knew how much it could have helped me,” said Clews, who is now 28 and studying history at UC Santa Cruz. “I would have graduated by now, and I would have started my career.” I could have saved myself a lot of time, frustration, and heartache.”

The bill builds on previous support for foster youth, a group that ranks near the bottom of almost every educational outcome. Only 61% of foster youth in California graduated from high school last year, compared to 87% of non-foster youth. According to state data, they dropped out of high school at nearly triple the rate of their non-foster peers. In addition, despite 93% saying they wanted to, only 4% of foster youth in the United States pursued a four-year degree.

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

Clews experienced the same thing. Clews attended 15 schools in three years after her mother lost custody when she was 15 years old, running away from many of them. She was struggling. And it showed, as it does with many foster children.

“I had 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,” Clews explained. “I didn’t know what the possibilities would be anymore.”

State Sen. Angelique Ashby (D-Sacramento), who spearheaded the new initiatives in the legislature, hopes that increased funding will alleviate 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,” Ashby said.

It’s not the first time California has invested in foster youth, with 4,000 leaving the system each year. The new budget allocation builds on previous layers of financial support, such as the $48 million passed last year to assist public colleges in expanding campus-based support for foster youth, as well as the Pell, Cal, and Chafee grants for both low-income and foster students. According to experts, this additional funding will bridge the gaps between those efforts.

“These two things really go hand in hand,” said Debbie Raucher, director of education at San Francisco-based nonprofit John Burton Advocates for Youth. “We’re now dealing with real, significant change.”

Though the details are still being worked out, the goal is for the additional funding to be automatically incorporated into students’ financial aid packages and adjusted based on each student’s level of need and the estimated cost of living per university. That automatic funding would have been game-changing for Leslie, who completed both her associate’s and bachelor’s degrees after leaving the foster care system, when she was trying to attend Cal State East Bay for 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 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 helps people in foster care. “Foster youth receiving this kind of support could relieve a lot of stress and help them perform well in school.”

Despite this, Raucher stated that the budget allocation has a limit. The new funding supplements an existing state program that requires students attending four-year colleges to pay up to $7,898 per year toward tuition or living expenses. In the coming months, Raucher’s team and Senator Ashby’s office intend to continue pushing a bill that would make four-year institutions truly free. The picture is different at community colleges. The low tuition costs, combined with new state financial aid, will make attending one of California’s community colleges completely free for foster youth. This is significant, according to Raucher, because 85% of foster youth who go on to higher education attend a community college — and the vast majority of them do not graduate today due to financial constraints.

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

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