A look at the number of financial-aid programs available to former foster youth in California might suggest that as long as these students can survive academically, the cost of college is covered.
But a surprisingly low number of these students receive all the grants they’re eligible for because they don’t get adequate information about ﬁnancial aid, and the aid programs themselves present hurdles, according to a new but little-noticed study (PDF) from the Institute for College Access & Success.
Former foster youth can get federal Pell grants and state Cal Grants available to other California students. They can also get up to $5,000 for higher education expenses from the federal Chafee Grant for former foster youth.
Together, in 2009-2010, these three grants can add up to almost $12,000 at a community college, $16,000 at a CSU school, and more than $20,000 at a UC campus. Yet researchers found fewer than 4 percent of the former foster youth who filled out a federal financial aid application in 2008-09 received all three grants.
While 84 percent of students who applied were eligible for a Pell Grant – the federal program for low-income students – just 17 percent were offered a Cal Grant, and only 9 percent received a Chafee.
“So many advocates with whom we spoke thought these youth were doing fine, getting full financial aid packages as a general rule,” said Deborah Frankle Cochrane, program director at the Institute and a co-author of the report.
The stakes are high. While research on emancipated foster youth is limited, a 2005 study, from the Institute for Higher Education Policy, estimated that 20 percent of foster youth who graduate from high school attend college, compared to about 60 percent of the general high school graduate population.
Those that do attend college face significant financial hurdles. The first problem with the Chafee grant is that there just isn’t enough cash for every eligible person.
Second, the grants don’t come soon enough. Students receive them in October at the earliest and often don’t get offers until months into the academic year.
Some students drop classes so they can stay afloat financially while they’re waiting for Chafee Grants – making them ineligible for the grant when the offer finally arrives. Students have to be enrolled at least half-time to get one.
And students have to be under age 23 to receive Chafee Grants. But most don’t start college right after high school or complete a degree program in four years.
“The road for former foster youth to get into college is more lengthy,” said Xochitl Sanchez-Zarama, director of the Guardian Scholars Program for former foster youth at San Francisco State University.
“By the time they get to me at a four-year, they're not eligible anymore for the money.”
While federal, state and university grants often cover the cost of fees, students struggle with the high cost of housing. The total price of attendance at San Francisco State University, for example, was more than $21,000 in 2008-09.
As for the Cal Grant, most of the foster youth interviewed didn’t know about the March application deadline. Those that did had to navigate bureaucracies to get a verified GPA calculation from several schools they attended.
Cal Grants are automatic for eligible students who meet the deadline. After that, students must compete for limited dollars.
Deanne Pearn, co-founder of First Place for Youth, an advocacy group in Oakland, said foster youth don’t have the support they need to deal with the financial aid red tape – from verifying their status as a foster child, to filing as an independent on aid forms.
“There is no role modeling. They don't know … how you have to be your own advocate,” she said.
Plus, automatic Cal Grants are only for students who apply within a year of graduation – aging out many former foster youth.
The study recommends a few important changes: Speed up the timing of the Chafee Grant. Award more grants, factoring in attrition. Rethink the age limits on Cal Grants and Chafee Grants. Guarantee Cal Grants for foster youth.
The need for aid for former foster youth – not to mention all low-income students – will only increase with this year’s fee increases.
“Even after Chafee they’re still met with an unmet need,” Sanchez-Zarama said. “They're left with no money in their pocket to cover books, living expenses, transportation – all the necessities that a student needs for their school. We have to come up with creative ways to cover those costs.”