Looming changes to the Federal Pell Grant Program will jeopardize the college prospects of former foster youth, who often start toward higher education with no academic credentials and high financial needs.
A budget deal reached by Congress in December maintained the amount of the Pell grants, but will limit eligibility for the grants in two key ways starting July 1st. First, students can only receive them for 12 semesters, down from 18. This change affects students retroactively, so students who have been in school for 12 semesters and planned to receive aid for another 6 semesters will run out as of July 1.
Second, students can no longer qualify for Pell grants through the "ability to benefit" test. The test allows those students who haven't yet received a high school diploma or GED to prove they are college prepared and therefore eligible to receive federal funding.
Both changes take effect on July 1st of this year. More than 65,000 students won't receive aid because of the changes, according to the Association of Community College Trustees.
Many of those students are foster youth, who not only rely on the financial support but also statistically take longer to graduate from college. Eight percent of foster youth alumni graduate from a two-year or four-year institution by age 26, compared to only six percent by age 24, according to the University of Chicago Chapin Hall Midwest Evaluation of Former Foster Youth.
"It's like a moving train is told to immediately stop and let people off," says Michael McPartlin, program coordinator of the Guardian Scholars Program at Community College of San Francisco (CSSF).
The Guardian Scholars Program provides comprehensive support to foster youth completing a GED, achieving an Associate's Degree or certificate program, or transferring to a four-year institution. McPartlin says a number of students have already visited his office with concerns about how they will now pay for school.
"This is just being thrown at them now. They already have academic plans in place as suggested by the school, and now they are stuck," says McPartlin.
One of the students stuck between a desire to continue education and a way to pay for it is Nicole Rodriguez, 26, who has been working toward an Associate's Degree since 2006.
When Rodriguez started school, she placed into English 91B, the lowest level English class offered at CCSF. In order to be eligible to transfer to a four-year college she must take and pass English 1B, which means there are five additional required classes for which she must pay.
She is now on her twelfth semester, and wants to transfer to a four-year college and study social work.
"For the vast majority of our students, because of multiple placements, they are placed in the most basic level classes and aren't entering prepared for the collegiate level," says McPartlin.
The last six years Rodriguez spent becoming college-ready was like a punishment, she now feels, without the financial ability to continue college.
"How can they do that, especially for foster youth who start at the lowest of the lowest?" says Rodriguez.
Rodriguez's road to college was long and arduous.
With a mother who was a prostitute and drug abuser, her life was never completely stable. At 15 she delivered a baby and, because her mother was on drugs, couldn't return home. As soon as Rodriguez left the hospital she and her baby entered foster care.
After graduating high school, she became a prostitute and drug addicted, a life that to issues with depression, PTSD, and anxiety. Yet eventually she made her way to Larkin Street Youth Services in San Francisco and was encouraged to continue her education at CCSF.
Now married with four children, she is devastated that lack of governmental funding may not allow her to become the professional she wants to be.
"It's still my dream to become a social worker, so not having that financial option takes away my ability to take care of my family while going to school," says Rodriguez
There are financial alternatives for foster youth who, like all students, can apply for student loans. In California, there are Chafee grants available, which awards former foster youth up to $5,000 in aid per year. But the aid is only available until age 23.
Now, because Rodriguez can no longer receive federal aid, she won't be eligible for the part-time job she has on campus, which is paid through work study.
"Yes I can take out loans, but I'm trying to get out of debt. Especially coming from foster care, I need to build a foundation," says Rodriguez.
"I may have to give up on school to take care of my family."
This story first ran in the Chronicle of Social Change, a new online publication dedicated to children and youth issues.