By Farrah Mina
During her senior year of high school, Madelyne Yang sat down with her counselor to strategize about college applications. Together, the pair identified Augsburg University, a private institution in Minneapolis, as a viable option for Yang.
The school was a good fit for a number of reasons: the liberal arts education, the breadth of academic programs and its campus, located in the heart of the city.
But above all, Augsburg is one of dozens of Minnesota colleges participating in a grant program that covers the cost of college for Minnesotans who were in foster care as teens.
Yang, who was in foster care from ages 13 to 18, was eligible. “I’ve always wanted to go to college, but the only problem was the financial part of it,” she said.
In its inaugural year, the state’s Fostering Independence Grants provided funding to nearly 500 young Minnesotans like Yang, according to data from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. The monies can be used to cover tuition, fees, room and board and other living expenses.
The program is backed by $3.8 million in state funds and provides the “last-dollar” needed for college attendance, covering any additional payments after all other financing sources have been tapped.
Students can apply for the grant by filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, known as FAFSA, or an application for the Minnesota Dream Act. Eligible applicants must be 26 or younger and have spent time in foster care after age 13.
In the 2022-2023 academic year, more than 1,200 students were eligible to receive funds from the Fostering Independence Grants, according to data from the Minnesota Office of Higher Education. Some eligible students may have had their financial aid covered through other programs such as the Pell Grant.
Passed by the Minnesota state legislature in 2021, the Fostering Independence Grants alleviate a tremendous financial burden for those who have grown up in foster care and often lack parental guidance and financial support at a key stage of their young adult lives.
Despite research indicating a vast majority of foster youth aspire to attend college, just 3% to 4% nationwide earn a bachelor’s degree, according to a 2018 report by the Legal Center for Foster Care and Education. Studies have found financial difficulties, housing instability and the need to work are among the barriers that prevent foster youth from pursuing a college degree.
Nationally, an estimated 37 states offer either tuition waivers or scholarships for foster youth, according to a report by three leading youth advocacy organizations: Fostering Academic Achievement Nationwide Network, Education Reach for Texans and John Burton Advocates for Youth.
Eligibility criteria greatly differ from state to state, including age limits for program participation, the age or amount of time spent in foster care, what the tuition assistance covers, and limitations on the amount of funding or the number of awards. (Turn to Page 19: Paying for College, for additional information).
Beyond Financial Support
Having wrapped up her first year of college, Yang is one of 12 Augsburg students who received a Fostering Independence Grant along with extra support from the university through its Augsburg Family Scholars, a program aimed at narrowing the opportunity gap for students with foster care backgrounds.
Students get help moving to campus and a $300 giftcard to outfit their dorm rooms and living spaces. They also have access to guaranteed year-round housing, a laptop and help navigating food and medical assistance programs. And, a dedicated lounge provides a space where students can grab a snack, mingle with their peers or do some homework. Students can also receive academic mentoring and support to explore research and graduate school opportunities.
The extra support is much needed, Yang said. “It just feels welcoming and it feels like you’re less alone,” she said. “I don’t really come across many fosters, and specifically not in college, so it’s really nice to know that I’m not the only foster going to school.”
While the state grants are a “gamechanger,” they aren’t enough on their own, said Tim Pippert, executive director of Augsburg Family Scholars and a sociology professor at Augsburg University. That’s why his program supplements the Fostering Independence Grants with academic support and opportunities for students to build community on campus.
“If you’ve made it to college, you’ve overcome so many hurdles already because the percentage of folks who age out of foster care with college degrees is really horrible,” Pippert said. “If you’ve made it this far, it’s our responsibility to help students finish the job and get a degree.”
If students are struggling academically or are unable to keep up with their course load, Pippert helps students come up with talking points ahead of them reaching out to professors about the challenges they’re facing.
That support is critical for those unprepared to navigate the demands of higher education, he said, adding that the educational experiences of young people in the child welfare system is often sporadic, defined by multiple moves and disruptions.
“If you don’t have that social capital,” he said, “what do you do when you run into a problem or fail a test? It’s so easy to give up if you don’t know — that actually happens to a lot of students.”
Spreading the Word
In an effort to bring students back to the classroom, Minneapolis Community & Technical College launched an email campaign, hosted information sessions and reached out to more than 300 former students who had dropped out but were eligible for the grants. Its efforts were successful and for 2023, the school had the greatest number of students receiving Fostering Independence Grants statewide — 32.
“There’s a reason why students stopped out, whether it’s external responsibilities or academic struggles or personal struggles or financial obstacles,” said Heidi Aldes, dean of enrollment management at Minneapolis Community & Technical College. “So the other piece was not just, ‘hey, come back,’ but ‘hey, come back and here’s how we can support you.’”
For the upcoming academic year, Aldes hopes to expand the school’s outreach efforts and focus on increasing the likelihood of success for those who enroll.
More proactive measures are needed to make students aware of the grant, said Kristy Snyder, director of the Twin Cities Opportunity Network.
“The next step is thinking about how do we do advertising and more proactive, clear communication,” Snyder said.
Students are typically notified of their eligibility for the Fostering Independence Grant after they’ve completed a FAFSA. But earlier notification is needed, so sophomores and juniors can start to plan for college, she added.
To understand what roadblocks young people may encounter, Augsburg University and Minneapolis Community & Technical College are developing focus groups to learn more about young people’s experiences with the grants. The groups, expected to kick-off in fall 2023, will focus on eligible students currently enrolled in college, students who didn’t continue their education and those who never enrolled.
“There’s just so many potential students that college isn’t on their radar because they don’t think it’s an option,” Pippert said. •
Farrah Mina is a freelancer based in Brooklyn. Before moving to New York to pursue a graduate degree, she covered Minnesota child welfare for over a year. Her work has appeared in The Imprint, Sahan Journal, the Minnesota Reformer and the Kansas City Star. She is a recent graduate of the University of Minnesota and an alum of the Emma Bowen Foundation.
PAYING FOR COLLEGE:
If you haven’t done so already, now is a good time to speak with your caseworker about having your child open a checking or savings account, if they don’t already have one. Many local banks and credit unions offer free or reduced fees for youth in foster care. This may mean students can receive funds faster using direct deposit and avoid check cashing fees. Also, when it’s time to start repaying loans (if any) students may get a discount for setting up automatic payments.
Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and Pell Grants
The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is the first and most important step in accessing financial aid and is the only way to apply for Pell Grants and federal student loans and is required for the Chafee Program. In addition, almost all post-secondary schools use the FAFSA to determine eligibility for need-based awards and work study programs.
The FAFSA is available beginning Oct. 1 for the academic year beginning the following fall. For example, to be considered for federal student aid for the 2023–24 award year, complete the FASFA form anytime between Oct. 1, 2022, and 11:59 p.m. Central time (CT) on June 30, 2024. Any FAFSA corrections or updates must be submitted by 11:59 p.m. CT on Sept. 14, 2024.
However, many states and schools have earlier deadlines. Additionally, some schools and programs give awards on a first-come, first-served basis, so it’s a good idea to complete the FAFSA as soon as possible.
The fastest and easiest way to submit your FAFSA is at studentAid.gov/h/apply-for-aid/fafsa. Applications are usually processed within a few days. Snail mail forms are also available from the U.S. Department of Education, but may take weeks to process. For the online FAFSA, students set up an account which they’ll keep throughout post-high school education. An address is not required to complete the FAFSA, but you will need the following:
- an email address and/or mobile phone number;
- a Social Security number or alien registration number;
- tax return or W-2 if you received any income in the previous year;
- the value of your assets, if any, including savings or checking accounts.
Parents of dependent students also need to create a FAFSA account and provide the same information. However, any student who, since age 13, was in foster care or declared a dependent/ward of the court for even a single day, is considered independent for the purposes of the FAFSA. This is true even if caregivers claim the student as a dependent for tax purposes. Students whose parents died after their 13th birthday are also considered independent.
NOTE: With the FAFSA that became available October 1, 2022, independent status is extended to youth not living with a parent or guardian, are homeless or are at-risk of becoming homeless.
Independent students are almost always eligible for more need-based aid and federal student loans than dependent students. Obtaining financial information from parents not living with their child(ren), who don’t have documentation of income or assets/ haven’t filed tax returns, could present a significant obstacle for youth in foster care or experiencing homelessness. Independent student status removes this barrier. Documentation that a student meets one of the requirements to be independent is not required when completing the FAFSA, but will likely be requested before financial aid is distributed. Examples of documentation include a record of admission to foster care; a statement from a caseworker, agency or county administrator, CASA or GAL; a statement from a professional familiar with the student’s housing history; or a court document. For more information, contact the school’s financial aid office.
Many schools will provide free, individual assistance to students completing the FAFSA, including computer and internet access. Contact the school’s advising and/or financial aid offices for more information. Once processed, students receive a student aid report (SAR), which shows if they will receive a federal Pell Grant and in what amount. The maximum federal Pell Grant is $7,395 for 2023–24 (July 1, 2023, through June 30, 2024). It does not have to be repaid if the student completes the term for which it is awarded. Students who drop out may have to repay a portion of the grant, even if none of their tuition is refunded.
The Chafee Program and State-Specific Aid
The John H. Chafee Foster Care Congress in 1999, assists youth in care and young adults formerly in care with funding and services to support their transition to adulthood, including Education and Training Vouchers (ETVs) to help students pay for college or other post-secondary training.
Eligible youth must have “aged out of foster care” or “after turning 16 years of age, have left foster care for kinship guardianship or adoption.” In many cases, youth who experienced out-of-home care after their 14th birthday are also eligible.
Students need to complete a FAFSA and be enrolled at least half-time. While the program is a federal benefit, it is administered by individual states and Indigenous tribes, which may have additional eligibility requirements. The maximum annual ETV award is typically $5,000, but not more than the student’s unmet financial need as determined by their school.
Additionally, Chafee offers the Independent Living Program (ILP). While not usually direct financial assistance, this program helps young people find and access educational opportunities, employment and housing as well as learning life skills such as budgeting and interviewing — all of which might benefit a student. To check eligibility and for details about how to apply for either program, see the directory of Chafee coordinators by state below.
Thirty-five states currently offer financial aid assistance to young people impacted by foster care, including tuition waivers, grants, scholarships or Chafee vouchers.
Each state sets its own eligibility guidelines and deadlines. In some states, aid may only be used at public colleges in that state. In some cases, both Chafee vouchers and state-specific aid awards are made on a first-come, first-served basis.
State-by-state directory of Chafee coordinators: bit.ly/chafdir
State-by-state guide to aid specific for foster youth: bit.ly/washwaiver
While many scholarships are awarded for academic achievement, others recognize students for their community service, extracurricular activities, interest in a particular field of study or demonstrated resilience. Several national scholarships are available specifically to aid youth who have experienced foster care.