Published on September 19th, 2017 | by abarries

SB 12 Help Foster Youth Get a Better Education

Instead of a fable, I sometimes feel like the “Tortoise and the Hare” is the story of my college career. I entered foster care at the age of 2 when my parents became incarcerated, facing life sentences. I spent the next 18 years in foster care. And after four years in college, I have yet to complete my two-year Associate’s Degree.

That may sound crazy to some people, but it’s extremely common for California’s foster youth, who complete college at rates much lower than their peers. By age 26, just 4 percent of foster youth hold a Bachelor’s Degree or higher, as compared to 36 percent of the same-age general population. A big reason for that is the cost of higher education and a lack of access to financial aid.

But like thousands of foster youth around the state, I’m not going to give up. I am going to keep fighting for my education. I’m asking the State of California to fight alongside me by adopting Senate Bill 12.

SB 12, authored by Senator Jim Beall, will help foster youth succeed in college. After bipartisan support in the California state legislature, it has made it to the Governor’s desk and if signed, will improve access to financial aid for foster youth, specifically the federally-funded Pell Grant that provides $5,920 for a student enrolled full-time.

Currently, almost all youth in foster are eligible for this critical form of financial aid, but just 50% receive it, according to a 2015 report on foster youth attending college in California.

SB 12 makes three fixes that will ensure foster youth have access to the Pell Grant. The first one is simple: require a foster youth’s social worker to identify a person to help them apply for college and financial aid.

That would have been a big help to me. When I was 16, I lived in a foster home where college was never discussed. No one in the house had a college degree and when I asked to be driven to the county Independent Living Skills Program to get learn about college, I was refused.

My social worker cared, but wasn’t much help. I was placed in Sonoma County, but she was based in San Mateo County and didn’t know about local resources to help youth with college and financial aid applications. She also had a long list of legally-required activities to conduct and helping me apply for college was not one of them. SB 12 would change that by ensuring a youth receives this help as part of their case plan.

The second provision of SB 12 would streamline the financial aid verification process, which requires foster youth to produce proof that they were in foster care to be deemed an “independent student.” I tracked down my social worker and got this proof my first year at Santa Rosa Junior College, but was not able to when I returned for my second year. This meant I lost the Pell Grant, which forced me to reduce the number of units I was taking to work full-time.

As a look back, I can see that losing the Pell Grant is when my college career really started to go off track. I was determined to stay in college, but now had to pay for it by working and taking loans. I transferred colleges to be close to better jobs, and in three years attended, Napa Valley College, Consumes River, and American River College and eventually Sacramento City College.

SB 12 would prevent a simple piece of paper from having this devastating effect. It would authorize a data match between the two state agencies that administer foster care and financial aid, so campuses know who was in foster care and therefore eligible for independent student status.

The final provision of SB 12 would offer more support to help foster youth stay enrolled in college. Across California, there is a network of 26 publicly-funded programs on community college campuses that provide hands-on support to foster youth, including academic and financial aid counseling specific to foster youth. With this kind of help, participants in these programs are 50% more likely to receive the Pell Grant than foster youth attending college statewide.

This kind of targeted assistance makes sense. The laws and regulations that pertain to foster youth are very specific and often not widely understood by the best intention financial aid officer. At each college I attended, I had to explain yet again, that I had been in foster care and was not required to submit my parents’ income information. In addition to being repetitive, I also found it painful to disclose this personal information over and over, often at financial aid counter.

I finally received the kind of help that SB 12 will expand, at Sacramento City College, which has a program to help foster youth navigate higher education. This assistance has allowed me to better manage my course load, stay in good academic standing and maintain financial aid.

SB 12 is not a hand out to foster youth. It doesn’t lower the bar or hold foster youth to a different set of rules. Instead, it makes a few simple administrative improvements that can yield tremendous results. An analysis of the bill found that the increased rate of Pell Grant receipt will bring an additional $29.5 million in federally-funded financial aid to foster youth. The cost to the State of California is an estimated $56,000 annually. I may not be a business major, but that seems like a good investment to me.

My path to college has not been a straight one, but I am committed to staying on it until I achieve my goal of being an attorney for children and youth in foster care. I continue to be enrolled part-time at Sacramento City College. With my work commitments, I take two classes a semester, which means that despite being in college for four years, I likely still have at least three years left.

But I don’t let that discourage me. I was in foster care 18 years, fighting for a better life for myself and for foster youth who come after me. And, as the fable laid out, it was the tortoise that won the race. SB 12 can make the race a little easier by opening the door to higher education and economic security for California’s foster youth. I urge the Governor to sign this important legislation.

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