DENVER — For any student, the prospect of going to college can be daunting. Between grades, college admissions tests, school applications, essays and financial aid, there’s a lot to think about. For foster youth, the hurdles they must overcome for higher education are even more daunting.
“I think a lot of times, people talk about foster kids falling through the cracks, and what they don't realize is these aren't cracks, they're canyons,” said Tori Shuler, director of advocacy for Fostering Great Ideas. “Kids in foster care are our state's most marginalized population in education. We have the lowest graduation rates, we have the lowest higher education enrollment rates, and we have the lowest graduation rate from higher education.”
Shuler knows firsthand about the challenges these kids face. She lived in a foster home for years while her parents struggled with substance abuse and mental health issues. She now runs a program that provides suitcases for foster youth to use when they move to a new home.
In Colorado, roughly 30% of foster youth graduate from high school within six years. Of those, only 13% go to college and just 3% graduate with a college degree, according to national data.
“The statistics around foster youth in their futures are pretty grim," said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger (D-Jefferson). "The majority of foster youth that do not go into higher education end up homeless, incarcerated or dead."
Now, a bipartisan group of lawmakers is behind a bill to offer free tuition for these students.
Senate Bill 22-008 would require all public higher education institutions in the state to waive undergraduate tuition and fees for Colorado resident who have been in foster care, beginning next year. It also calls for each academic institution to designate an employee to serve as a liaison to help foster students navigate through federal financial aid forms.
“For me, as a teacher myself, I just can't believe that we haven't done this sooner,” Zenzinger said. “I see this as being one of the most significant bills that I have ever run down here at the legislature.”
Currently in the state, there are some scholarship programs that cater specifically to foster youth. However, the application and interview process can take a lot of time and effort.
Emily Murray was one of the lucky ones. She entered the foster system at age 14 and jumped from home to home for about five years. Because of that, along with a change in schools, high school was difficult to complete, but Murray persevered.
When it came time to start thinking about college, Murray worried about getting loans since she didn’t have a family to financially support her. She was able to earn several scholarships that helped cover tuition and living expenses, but she knows her circumstances are different than most foster youth.
“I feel very lucky, very fortunate to be in the position that I am, but I'm also saddened because I know that I am the only foster kid on a graduation stage,” Murray said. “I had to work incredibly hard to get those scholarships. I had to do so many applications, so many interviews.”
Murray is now attending graduate school. Her graduate program is currently remote due to COVID-19 restrictions, so she is staying with her former foster family while working towards her law degree.
Murray knows she’s lucky to have a foster family who is willing to take her in even despite having aged out of the system.
Shuler and Zenzinger don’t believe education should come down to luck. They’re hoping this bill will pass and help future foster students have the same opportunities as everyone else.
“It's not because we're not smart, we're smart. It's not because we're not capable, we're very capable. We're very resilient," Schuler said. "Of all the students I've known who've dropped out, not one did so because they couldn't handle the coursework. It was that they couldn't manage everything else."
The bill is estimated to cost the state roughly $693,000 if approved. Th fiscal note attached to the bill assumes 4,500 students would qualify for the program.
The bill passed its first committee hearing last week. Despite having bipartisan support, two Republicans voted against it, saying the issue is important but they didn’t think the policy solution was the right fit. It now moves on to the appropriations committee.