Like many 19 year olds, Dustin Moore is having trouble deciding on a career. He’s narrowed it down to either electrical engineering or social work, but since both jobs require a college degree, Moore put his plans on the back burner after graduating from high school last year.
In foster care since he was 14, Moore, of Lansford, has been too busy preparing for his 21st birthday, when he’ll be out of the system and expected to survive on his own. Finding a place to live and food comes first, Moore said. He figured he’d go to college in a few years, when he could afford it.
“I was going to wait until I had more of my own money saved up. ‘Cause I don’t want to worry about getting a loan.”
A new Pennsylvania law, which allows foster kids to attend college tuition-free, could change Moore’s plans. Signed into law by Gov. Tom Wolf on June 28, the Fostering Independence Through Education Act waives tuition for youth who were in foster care at age 16 or older, including those who have “aged out” of the system or been adopted.
All Pennsylvania colleges and universities, including public, private, community colleges and state-related schools, will begin accepting the waivers for the fall 2020 semester. The waivers, which also cover college application fees, can be used for up to five years or until a student reaches age 26. Tuition at the 14 state-owned universities is about $7,700.
Students would be required to use all available financial aid, such as grants and scholarships, before the waiver kicks in.
While many foster kids already qualify for various financial aid packages, including federal Chafee grants, the new law goes further by requiring colleges to collect and report data to government agencies tasked with improving the success and retention of foster kids.
It also creates a “point of contact” at schools, a person whose sole job will be to help foster kids navigate the financial aid process and find support services on campus.
“That’s kind of great,” said Kayla Summa, an 18-year-old Allentown resident who has been in foster care since she was 13 and hopes to earn a degree in social work. “Hopefully it’s a person who has an understanding of what foster kids experience.”
Pennsylvania has 25,441 children in foster care, according to the most recent report by Pennsylvania Partnerships for Children. Less than 900 would be eligible for the waivers, according to an estimate by the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice and Research at the University of Pennsylvania.
Foster kids must have graduated from high school or earned a GED to qualify. Once enrolled, they must maintain “satisfactory academic progress” as defined by each college or university.
While schools are still working out the details of what they’ll consider satisfactory, advocates hope educators will take into account the turbulence many foster kids experience and set realistic grade-average goals. Frequent moves and absenteeism leave many foster kids ill-prepared academically.
“It’s not unusual for this population to attend several different high schools, which have very different curricula,” said Elyse Coldren, a counselor at Valley Youth House in Bethlehem.
Although 70% of foster youth want to go to college, they attend at less than half the rate of their peers, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Only about 14% of those who make it to college eventually earn a degree, the foundation found, and they typically take six years or more to finish.
Without a family back home to support them, foster kids can have a difficult time adjusting to college life.
“These youth lack a safety net,” Coldren said. “Most don’t have the full freedom of a typical teenager. They have restrictions in foster homes. That can make for a difficult transition.”
The law brings Pennsylvania in line with 28 other states that allow foster kids to attend college tuition-free, said Nadia Mozaffar, an attorney with Juvenile Law Center who helped draft the legislation.
“This is a long overdue first step in helping this population,” she said.
Though it had wide support in Harrisburg, it took two years for the bill to reach Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk. One of the main sticking points was requiring colleges to provide free housing as well as tuition. As a compromise, room and board was taken out of the bill, Mozaffar said.
Officials at Penn State, which could see the largest influx of foster kids, were vocal about their opposition to the bill.
“Penn State did have concerns with the costs associated with the proposed legislation – costs which would have to be paid for by other students,” said Penn State spokesman Wyatt DuBois. “We worked with legislators to address those concerns.”
Imani Hernandez of Bethlehem said she won’t mind paying for her own dorm room if she decides to take advantage of the waiver. In foster care for three years, Hernandez, 18, of Bethlehem, said earning money to pay rent will make her feel like she’s taking responsibility for her education.
“I have a pride thing. I believe that if you work hard for what you want, it will all fall into place,” Hernandez said.
Many colleges already have programs in place to support foster kids. Penn State recently launched an initiative called “Fostering Lions” at their University Park campus, and four schools – Cabrini University, Community College of Philadelphia, Temple University and West Chester University – banded together last year to create “Foster Care to College,” a program designed to develop best practices for recruiting, retaining and supporting students transitioning to college from foster care.
Closer to home, Kutztown University launched the PROFS program, which provides foster kids with financial assistance, housing and one-on-one support. Through a partnership with the nonprofit ChildPromise, foster kids who attend Kutztown will also receive a care package of linens, school supplies and personal care items.
Advocates and school officials from across the state will meet over the next few months to hammer out details of how the waiver program will be implemented, Mozaffar said. Information will be posted on the Juvenile Law Center’s website.
Though he was already set on attending culinary school in New York, 19-year-old Jon Hammell of Bath, who’s been in foster care since he was 11, said the new law allows him to weigh his options.
“I like the idea of having more opportunities,” he said.
Moore, who like Hammell, Hernandez and Summa, serves on Valley Youth House’s Youth Advisory Board, said he hopes foster kids who had given up on the idea of college will take a second look now that they don’t have to worry about taking out a student loan.
“If you’re in foster care, I bet you any amount of money that at one point in your life you were told that you were going to be nothing,” Moore said. “You can go to college and prove that person wrong. It opens up a whole new world for us.”