Budget cuts threaten foster youth in college

Daniel Heimpel, director of Fostering Media Connections, argues against cutting college funding for foster care youth. Photo: Daniel Heimpel

NEW YORK, April 11, 2012 —Thousands of foster care youth may lose access to college thanks to proposed budget cuts. 

Since former foster care students who receive financial aid are five times more likely to acquire a college degree than those who do not, it’s imperative that financial assistance be made available to these students.

Below, Daniel Heimpel, an award-winning journalist and director of Fostering Media Connections, an organization that leverages the media to bring awareness about and change to the foster care system in the United States, shares his views on the dire consequences of proposed budget cuts:

For the past decade-and-a-half, California-based philanthropies, public institutions of higher education and policymakers have been unrelenting in their efforts to improve the post-secondary success foster youth.

The sum of these efforts has been impressive. In 1998 Cal State Fullerton was first college to offer comprehensive services to foster youth as they navigated school; today there are 79 public campuses in California with similar post-secondary supports, serving as many as 2,500 youth. Seventy-one percent of students enrolled in these types of programs graduated or were still in school at the end of the school year, according to a 2010 study. The overall college persistence rate in 2010 for all students was 56 percent. Foster youth in these types of programs are excelling beyond their peers at a 15-point clip.

This stet-level success has been met with national reforms that promise to improve the life paths of foster youth across the country. The Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 included a handful of amendments aimed at increasing post-secondary opportunities as foster youth transition into adulthood. Also in 2008, the federal Fostering Connections to Success and Increasing Adoptions Act offered matching federal funds to states that would extend foster care to age 21, greatly increasing opportunities for post-secondary success.

But for all this positive momentum, the foundation upon which these reforms have been built is far from set.

I teach a course at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism called Journalism for Social Change, in which students from the graduate schools of Journalism, Public Policy and Social Welfare explore the intersection of those domains as they pertain to foster care.

On April 3rd, we examined the post-secondary education of foster youth. One of our guests, Amy Freeman — a program officer with the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, which alongside the Stuart Foundation, has taken a lead role in California on increasing post-secondary opportunities for foster youth — said something that immediately peaked everyone in the room’s interest.

“Starting July you won’t be eligible for financial aid unless you have a high school diploma or a GED at community colleges,” Freeman said. “And the caveat there is that the GED programs are pulling back…. So it’s a catch 22 situation there, with: your not eligible for financial aid if you don’t have this, but you can’t get it.”

What Freeman was referring to was a change in the 2012 federal budget, which would glean savings from the Pell Grant program by eliminating “Ability-to-Benefit” provisions starting July 1st, 2012.

Currently, students without a high school diploma or degree can take a general skills test or complete six credits, and in so doing show their “Ability-to-Benefit” from college, making them eligible for financial aid.

For students exiting foster care, fifty percent of whom will not finish high school, community college is often-times the dividing line between a chance at future success and the almost rote adverse outcomes so often associated with foster youth.

And for these young people, accessing financial aid is one of the most important elements in their ability to stick with school and continue advancing their education.  A study released in late 2011 shows that California foster youth who receive financial aid are five times more likely to attain a community college degree than those that don’t.

The irony of excluding foster youth from community college financial aid to save money in the short term becomes even more glaring when you take the forfeited fiscal benefit into account. For every dollar spent, researchers from Washington-based Partners for Our Children and Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago concluded that extending foster care to age 21 in California would yield a return of $2.40 in “per-person work-life earnings” associated with increased college attendance and completion alone.

As we evaluate our priorities in the land of the slashed budget, we cannot forget about the longer term investments that can yield the greatest returns. Investing in the educational success of children exiting foster care is not only the plainly right thing to do, but – in the land of the slashed budget — a fiscal imperative.

The following video was shot during the April 3rd session of UC Berkeley’s Journalism for Social Change, where guests discussed the challenges and promising developments in the post-secondary success of students leaving foster care.


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Andrea Poe

Andrea Poe is a veteran journalist, whose work has appeared in thousands of publications, including Town & Country, Marie Claire and Entrepreneur.  She is the author of several books and her work has appeared in many others, including anthologies and college textbooks. 

Andrea serves as editor of the Travel & Food section at The Washington Times Communities.  Her love of travel has led her to cover everything from remote villages in the Andes to her hometown of New York, from Paris to Pittsburgh, from Beijing to the Bahamas.  No matter where she travels, she likes to uncover the unusual and share with readers those often-overlooked aspects of a place and its people.  She dubs her column Raven’s Eye as a nod to her illustrious (and, yes, infamous) relative, Edgar Allan Poe, a writer who knew more than a little something about the quirky and unique.  

Andrea is also mother to Maxine, who was adopted from Vietnam in 2006, and is the inspiration for The Red Thread column on adoption at The Washington Times Communities.   Andrea is currently at work on a book on international adoption.

In addition to her work as mother, writer and traveler, she is the founder and president of Media Branding International, a consulting firm that helps individuals and organizations craft and promote their image in media outlets around the globe.

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