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Free'ish Solutions: Early Enrollment at College for Foster Youth

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Despite every obstacle imaginable, foster youth are making it to college in California. It is a testament to their incredible young spirits that they find a path to persevere and overcome a litany of abuses to get that far in their education. Despite abuse, neglect, homelessness, rampant mobility, multiple schools, and the near complete lack of educational resources and support, thousands of foster youth are arriving at the California community colleges, University of California campuses and the Cal State campuses with ambition, a will to succeed and a vision for a brighter future. And yet, these youth, having beat the odds, are all-too-often turned away, lost in a tsunami of applicants flooding our higher education system in California. Too many students. Too few slots. It is both an economic and moral imperative that former foster youth receive priority/early enrollment, allowing them to secure the classes they need to complete their degrees.

The numbers reveal a bleak picture for educational success amongst foster youth. Studies reveal that that about 50 percent of foster youth complete high school by age 18 compared to 70 percent of youth in the general population. Of those foster youth that graduate high school, approximately 20 percent will attend college compared to 60 percent of high school graduates in the general population. Of that 20 percent, only 1-11 percent will graduate college. While these statistics are indeed bleak, we also know that, when youth are admitted and provided with support and guidance on campus, they are more likely than even the general population to persist in college.

It is a tragedy that when foster youth do beat these odds and get admitted into college, they are often unable to secure the classes they need and they leave. Former foster youth are not afforded with the liberty to add another semester to their education -- they need to work to survive, are often taking care of their family and do not have the money to prolong their education. It is no surprise, then, that foster youth that leave will become a burden on other government programs -- welfare, jail, etc., instead of graduating college and becoming contributing successful members of society. Compare this to the flip side: We know that 25-34 year olds who have at least a BA earn, on average, 61 percent more than those with only a high school diploma or GED. An abandoned education is doom sentence for foster youth.

In a time of unparalleled budget cuts and competition for limited resources, it is important to identify why this group should benefit from a privilege-like early/priority enrollment. Unlike most young adults, that can stay with family or rely on them for financial support, most foster youth cannot depend on parents or other family members to help them pay for school or get through even the most minor unexpected financial set-back -- like a prolonged education. Therefore, financial aid becomes a linchpin to receiving a degree or certificate. While the situation has improved, foster youth still find the financial aid application process burdensome, confusing to navigate and without the help of supportive adults, who are often absent in their lives. In these economic times, it is vital to consider that this relatively small shift in policy does not add to the financial burden of Californian higher educational institutions.

Providing priority enrollment for foster youth will allow them to register for classes early, thereby increasing the likelihood they will complete their education. The recently enacted AB 12 Fostering Connections Act, which extends foster care in California until age 21, would also be served by just such a policy change. This legislation requires foster youth to demonstrate that they are working or enrolled in school full-time. Early/priority enrollment for foster youth will enhance the outcome of the investment made in AB 12 as foster youth could complete their education during the extended time in foster care. Instead of emancipating 18 year olds, without a degree or a prayer -- California would be graduating an annual class of 5,000-10,000 college graduates that also happened to be foster youth.

Foster youth are our children. The state has pulled them legitimately from their homes, and invests in them for years -- only to see that investment go nowhere after they emancipate. AB 12 Fostering Connections, combined with a policy supporting Early (Priority) Enrollment, will yield a much higher economic and moral return for the investment California makes in its most vulnerable.