To boost their chances of making it through college, legislation introduced in Sacramento would give current or former foster youth priority when registering for classes at the state's public colleges and universities.
Under current law, students who have served in the armed forces or who have disabilities are granted preference when signing up for classes. Students who were foster children would become the third group provided preference under AB 194, introduced by Assemblyman Jim Beall, D-San Jose.
The law would require California's 112 community colleges and 23 California State University campuses to give current or former foster youth preferential treatment when registering for classes, and would encourage the University of California to do so as well.
Advocates say this would be especially beneficial at the state's community colleges, where budget cuts have caused the system to slash hundreds of courses and sections, making it increasingly difficult for students to meet their educational goals in a reasonable period of time.
The law was a major focus of a conference this week in Sacramento attended by 650 foster youth and advocates.
Beall's legislation raises the specter that many other groups and constituencies will also seek special treatment in gaining access to classes, especially as it is likely that more courses will be cut in response to the Gov. Jerry Brown's proposed $290 million budget reduction for community colleges.
But Beall said there are compelling reasons for granting foster youth preference in class registration. For one thing, his legislation is "revenue neutral," in Sacramento budget parlance, which means it won't cost the state anything.
Secondly, he said, it will save the state money in the long run. "It is a proven fact that if foster youth don't complete their education, more and more of them become a cost to government," Beall said. "When they drop out and become homeless, their failure becomes our cost."
What's more, his legislation will also only affect a very small number of students – an estimated 1,500 to 3,000 students between the ages of 18 and 22. That is a tiny proportion of the 212,000 students attending UC, the 412,000 students at CSU, and the nearly 3 million community college students.
David Ambroz, executive director of the Los Angeles City College Foundation and himself a former foster child, said that making sure former foster youth get a college education is in the state's best interest, especially in light of the enormous investment it has already made in them.
"We should not ditch them by the side of the road just when they are about to reach the finish line, and become taxpayers and successful members of society," Ambroz said.
So far, the California community college system has endorsed the Beall bill. CSU has yet to take a position on it.
Teri Kook, director of child welfare at the San Francisco-based Stuart Foundation, a major advocate on behalf of foster youth, said the proposed legislation represents an "elegant solution" to helping them complete a college education.
A youth poll released this week by New America Media, "A Dream Deferred," found that 40 percent of the young people surveyed say budget cuts to education have changed their ability to reach their educational goals. That is likely to apply even more to foster youth, who face special challenges.
A big part of the problem, Kook said, is that former foster youth typically don't have the family support, housing and financial assistance enjoyed by students who grow up in intact families, and are more likely to drop out if they can't get the classes they need. "Their ability to hold on is much more difficult than for young people who have a safety net of some kind," she said.
Kook pointed out that many California colleges provide special services to athletes, including tutoring and year-round housing.
"If we can do this for football players, why wouldn't we do this for foster youth who have far fewer resources?" she said.
For an overview of the challenges facing foster youth, see this report by the Public Policy Institute of California.