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Removing the Barriers to Higher Education for Homeless and Foster Youth

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At this time of year we hear heartwarming stories about homeless kids who manage to graduate from college. Those kids are few and far between.

Although many states have programs in place where youth in foster care who graduate on time and with decent grades are supposed receive support to go on to college, fewer than 3 percent of kids who have been in foster care make it into college. Of those who do manage to get accepted into college, only about 3 percent successfully graduate with degrees.

I know firsthand many of the barriers homeless kids and youth from foster care face in education. I was one of those invisible kids -- sexually abused, randomly beaten by my parents and stepsiblings. My role models were mobsters and motorcycle gang members in Las Vegas. I suffered every kind of abuse imaginable at the hands of those charged with keeping me safe. I was wrongly in special education classes until a caring teacher figured out when I was 13 that I just needed glasses.

By age 15, I was homeless. Worried about losing my spot on the football team, I kept my homelessness a secret from my high school and couch surfed. I juggled football and track practices, jobs and homework and graduated number 11 out of a class of 700 students.

Then a miracle happened.

I earned a full-ride football scholarship to Georgia Institute of Technology where Coach Bill Curry was in his first year as head coach. When I flew from Las Vegas to Atlanta, everything I owned fit in an orange duffel bag. Georgia Tech officials had no idea they were getting a homeless teen. Lucky for me, the university had instituted its "total person program," which meant that athletes got training on every aspect of being a well-rounded individual.

Even with the support that came with being a student athlete, I often struggled. During every college break, I had to contend with the possibility of being homeless again and worry about where I would eat and sleep since the dorms and cafeteria were closed. I had no one to turn to pay for incidentals, and NCAA rules made it illegal for me to get help from alums. No one in my family had graduated from college, so being in school was like landing in a foreign country where I didn't understand the language or the currency.

After a very successful freshman year on the field and in the classroom, I had what I was told were career-ending shoulder injuries. When I woke up from surgery, Coach Curry was by my bedside, and told me he didn't care whether I played football again -- my scholarship was safe. Then he said words I'll never forget: "I care about you, Sam."

That was the first time in my life I had ever felt loved. I re-earned a starting position on the team, and contributed to one of Georgia Tech's most winning teams. When I hit an emotional wall my junior year stemming from my traumatic past, the coaching staff made sure I got professional help. Thanks to academic tutoring, I was on academic scholarships my last two years at Georgia Tech.

Despite the obstacles and thanks to many mentors, I graduated with honors.

More than 30 years later, I am saddened that shockingly little has changed in terms of helping our most vulnerable teens gain access to higher education. They face all kinds of barriers--from an outdated paper voucher system that allows them to take the ACT/SAT or waive college application fees to contending with homelessness during school breaks to being suspended from classes because the state fails to pay a tuition bill on time. Homeless teens and those in foster care rarely graduate on time from high school, because their high school transcripts get so fouled up from being moved so often.

Among youth in foster care nationally, fewer than 50 percent graduate high school. The rate among homeless teens hasn't been measured, but I suspect it's worse than that. Yet a recent survey showed that 90 percent of all jobs now require a high school diploma or GED.

I know all of this from working with kids as co-founder and national spokesperson of the Orange Duffel Bag Foundation (ODBF), a 501c3 nonprofit that does professional coaching on life plans with at-risk kids ages 12-24. I recently met a 15-year-old who has been through 39 placements, including 17 different foster homes. He's an A student, but I can only imagine what his transcripts must look like. Another young man in Columbus, Ohio, found out he was one-half credit shy of graduating. His caseworker failed to submit his application in time for the full-ride he would have had at Ohio State University. His caseworker dropped him at the local men's homeless shelter the day after he was supposed to graduate.

A staggering 70 percent of the people in our prisons report having been in foster care or homeless shelters as children. Ironically, the cost of incarcerating a youth for a year equals the amount it would take for a year of education at many of our best colleges and universities.

We cannot afford as a nation to overlook the educational needs of our most vulnerable young people. As part of the Atlanta-based Community Youth Opportunity Initiative designed to help youth in foster care, ODBF recently met with the leadership committee of the Georgia Board of Regents to present ideas about how to help break down the barriers that are currently preventing them from scaling the ivy walls. Most expressed shock and concern about the labyrinth these young people, who frequently don't have one single caring adult to advocate for them, are expected to navigate.

Let's tear down some walls and break the cycle of generational poverty that many of our young people face.

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