Wisconsin aims to become the 29th state to offer some form of tuition support to foster youth.
I hope they are able to pass the legislation. Research shows that between 31% and 46% of foster kids experience some period of homelessness between "aging out" of foster care at 18 and their mid-twenties. They either live on the street, in homeless shelters, or "couch surf" in their friends homes.
College gives foster kids (my siblings and I entered foster care system when I was 13) a chance to develop as independent young adults, to be competitive in the job market, and in many cases, to rise above the poverty we grew up in. According to the Education Commission of that States, there are now 28 states that offer foster kids varying levels of financial support for college (tuition waivers, grants, or scholarships), and New York is one of them through the Foster Youth College Success Initiative established by McKinney's Education Law section 6456. This bill provides grants to SUNY schools (and CUNY schools in the NYC area) to cover tuition, fees, books, transportation, housing, and summer college prep, including advising, tutoring and academic assistance. So financial and academic support, to better ensure their success.
These supports were not available when I graduated from high school in the early 1980s. The rare foster kids who dared pursue a college education (of the 75 kids who lived with my foster mother during her career as a foster parent, only 3 of us went to college, and only my brother and I graduated from college) back then had to make our own way. Our family was rare; three of us were still in foster care when we graduated from high school and we all went on to college. All of us relied on some combination of scholarships, financial aid, student loans to pay for school.
To apply for financial aid back then, foster kids had to provide financial data from their parents, even if they had no relationship with them or access to that information or access to those resources. In my case, my parent's poverty helped me get some financial aid I might not otherwise have gotten, so it worked in my favor that I had enough of a relationship with them to get that information. But they only gave me a total of $75 towards my college expenses, so not much financial support there.
I was 17 when I graduated high school, so unlike many foster kids, I would have been able to continue in foster care until the next fall when I turned 18. That might have been enough time to get a job and save some money so I could afford a place to live, but for many foster kids, it isn't enough. Which is how they end up homeless or in jail. However, I didn't have to find out what would happen to me if working and being on my own at 18 was my only option, because I was able to go to college.
The Big Breaks That Allowed Me To Succeed
Because I went on to college, my Medicaid coverage was extended from my 18th birthday until my 21st birthday, and my foster mother got her monthly stipend for my room and board until I was 21. Legally, that money was hers, but every month college was in session she deposited it into a shared checking account so that I could use it for expenses at school. My first, and perhaps most important, big break. Without that extra money, I don't know what I would have done. And because she was still getting that stipend, she also allowed me to continue to stay with her during college breaks and summers, although I had to bring everything I owned with me back and forth to school, or store it in a barn while I was away. And everything stored in that barn became water-damage by my junior year.
I turned 21 during the fall of my senior year of college, and that's where my health insurance and my foster mother's support stopped. I had minimal coverage through the health center on campus, so I didn't really notice the loss of health insurance. But without that monthly stipend, I had to pick up a second job to help cover my rent. I was already doing 20 hours a week at a work study job. The second job did not last; it was too much to keep up with school work and my first job, my social life, and also get enough sleep, so I was fired for missing a mandatory, unpaid staff meeting at the second job on one of my days off. Retail - horribly abusive to their employees. As a result of not being able to manage a second job, I fell behind in rent.
My second big break was that two of my brothers were able to loan me some of the money I needed to keep up with my rent the first half of senior year. Even so, by the end of senior year, I was five months behind in rent.
This was where I got my third big break - my landlord let me carry that debt until I had a full-time job and could pay her back. She even rented to me again for the following year, deferring the required first month's rent and a security deposit until I found a job, so that I had somewhere to live after graduation. I paid her back in full as soon as possible that first year.
Without these big breaks, I don't think I would have finished school or had anywhere to live senior year. In other words, I would have become homeless. And that possibility was always there in my mind during my early 20s, when I was living paycheck to paycheck, paying back my debts from senior year, and barely scraping by. But instead, because a handful of people were willing to provide needed financial support, I was able to finish school and find a job, and become successful.
And now, in 28 states across the country, foster kids have a chance to do just that, without having to hope that the people around them will come through in a crisis. This is good news for foster kids in those 28 states, but we need the rest of the country to catch up.