A Guide to College Financial Aid

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What You Need to Know to Help Your Kid Fund Their Education

By Sara Tiano

In the exciting time of preparing to attend college, figuring out how to pay for it can be a dark cloud looming over the process, threatening a storm of disappointment.

For foster youth, some of whom have grown accustomed to facing life without some of the advantages and familial supports their peers enjoy, this can be an especially daunting challenge and can even deter youth from chasing goals of higher education.

But that doesn’t have to be the case. The federal government and many states offer supports to help care-experienced youth achieve a college degree. Foster youth are eligible for federal Pell grants, which offer low-income students tuition assistance for up to six years of full-time schooling. Twenty states offer waivers for tuition and fees for this population.

Research shows that more than 90 percent of foster youth want to attend college, so helping them figure out how to finance it is an invaluable support to offer. But across the country, foster youth are leaving millions of dollars in federal financial aid on the table, according to Debbie Raucher, a project manager for John Burton Advocates for Youth.

The key is figuring out how to tap into that money. By equipping yourself with a few basic facts and resources, you can guide your foster teen through this process and set them up for success.

The best place to start the financial aid journey is by helping your child complete the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA) — a one-stop shop of sorts for federal loans, grants and scholarships.

FAFSAs are received and processed by the office of Federal Student Aid, a part of the U.S. Department of Education, which each year provides more than $120 billion in federal grants, loans and work-study funds to more than 13 million students.

FAFSAs must be completed for each year the student will attend college. The application period typically runs from October to June each year, though some states and schools have specific deadlines — most between February and May — so it’s important to check if any of those apply to your student. Early application is encouraged to maximize your eligibility for the various types of aid; in some states, funds are distributed on a first-come-first-served basis.

The form will ask about the student’s personal, family and financial information, as well as their plans for college. To ensure you have all the information you’ll need to complete the application, be sure your student has their Social Security card or number, their tax information, including old returns, and a list of 10 schools they plan on applying to before starting the application.

Much of the form focuses on the financial standing of the student and their parents, but youth with experience in foster care have some special exemptions. Youth who are in foster care, or have been in foster care at any point in time after age 13, are considered “independent students.” This means they report only their personal information on the FAFSA, and not that of their foster parents or legal guardians, or adoptive parents if they were adopted after age 13.

Foster parents and legal guardians are not considered parents for the purposes of FAFSA and their finances will not be taken into consideration in the youth’s application for aid.

Experience in foster care and status as an independent student could open up more financial aid opportunities, so when asked about foster care, students should mark “yes” if they spent even one day in foster care after age 13, even if they are now in a stable and permanent placement or under legal guardianship.

Most colleges will require students to provide verification of foster youth status. Do not wait for this verification to be requested — the earlier it is provided, the faster financial aid will be granted. If the necessary forms aren’t available through the college’s student portal, reach out to the school’s foster youth liaison or financial aid advisor.

Students will also be asked to list their household size. Youth filing as “independent students” should not include biological, foster or adoptive family members and should list their household size as one.

Students will be required to indicate where they plan to live during the school year. For independent students, it’s important that they do not select “with parent” as their living arrangement if they plan to live with a foster parent, kin caregiver or legal guardian. Instead, they should select “off campus” to maximize their eligibility to receive aid for living expenses.

Independent students will be required to submit personal financial information on the FAFSA, including earned income and tax information if they file. Youth should not report benefits from foster care or extended foster care as income, even if the funds are paid directly to them.

If youth have savings built up, transferring those funds to a custodial account managed by a trusted adult prior to completing the FAFSA can increase the amount of aid they can receive.

After submitting the FAFSA, it is important for you and your foster youth to regularly check the email address you listed on the form. You may receive requests for follow up information, and your application and any potential aid will not be processed until those requests are met. Be sure your student uses an email address that they will keep active throughout college.

Once your student has committed to a college, they should check the student portal regularly as well as the email address to make sure they don’t miss any important financial aid communication. Once you’ve submitted your FAFSA, there are a few more steps to maximizing federal financial aid. Youth who have or will age out of foster care, enroll in extended foster care, or are adopted after age 16 may be eligible for a grant of up to $5,000 per year through the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program. Each state has slightly different eligibility and application processes for Chafee grants; you can find the specifics for your state at www.childwelfare.gov or by simply running an internet search.

If this all sounds like a lot to take on, it’s important to remember there are a number of people you can turn to for help, like your student’s high school counselor or the financial aid coordinator at the college they plan on attending. Your social worker can also connect you with folks who can help, or they may even be able to help you themselves. But before you dive into all of this, go ahead and give yourself a pat on the back. If college is the next step for your foster youth — and you’re committed to helping them reach that goal — you’re doing something very right.

Sara Tiano is a Los Angeles-based general assignment reporter for The Chronicle of Social Change covering child welfare and juvenile justice. As a freelance reporter focused on these issues, her work has previously appeared in WitnessLA, Youth Today and the Juvenile Justice Information Exchange.

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