Pennsylvania foster kids will be able to attend college tuition-free in 2020. But the law could be even stronger, advocates say

Representatives from the Field Center testify about foster care in front of the House Democratic Policy Committee. (Photo by Sarah Anne Hughes)

EXTON — Starting in fall 2020, young adults in the foster care system will be able to enroll tuition-free at Pennsylvania colleges and universities.

But at a Monday hearing on foster care convened by the state House Democratic Policy Committee, child welfare experts told lawmakers the legislation could be even stronger.

This summer, the Pennsylvania General Assembly approved a bill that requires post-secondary institutions to provide tuition and fee waivers to teens and young adults who were in foster care at age 16 or older.

“Although this is a wonderful example of how the Legislature can make a difference in contributing to improved outcomes, a notable shortfall of the legislation is that it focuses on tuition only,” Sarah Wasch, program manager at the University of Pennsylvania’s Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research, testified Monday at the West Whiteland Township Building in Chester County.

“The waiver kicks in after all other grants and scholarships have been applied to the school’s tuition, leaving students without financial support for room and board, a crucial component of post-secondary success and often a significant barrier to perseverance for foster youth,” she continued.

A May report from the Field Center estimated that between 392 and 866 eligible teens and young adults would enroll under the law each year. The most likely cost for tuition will total between $319,000 and $704,000 per year, depending on the number of students.

Adding room and board waivers would bring the total annual cost to between $1.03 million and $5.66 million statewide.

At the moment, Pennsylvania foster kids who were still in the system at 16 can apply for a federal Chafee Education and Training Grant of up to $5,000.

But of the 8,356 people who were eligible for a grant during the 2018-19 academic year, just 429 applied for and received one, according to the Field Center.

Unlike the existing federal grant program, the costs of the waivers will be borne by the colleges and universities where the students enroll.

That’s one reason Penn State University originally opposed parts of the measure.

“Penn State did have concerns with the costs associated with the proposed legislation ― costs which would have to be paid for by other students,” university spokesperson Wyatt DuBois told the Morning Call in July. “We worked with legislators to address those concerns.”

The Field Center anticipates that between 20 and 44 students will use the waivers at Penn State campuses each year. That would bring the cost for tuition, minus grants, to between $127,626 and $281,949.

Adding room and board would bring the price tag to just over $781,000, if 44 students enroll.

Wasch said in a follow-up call that “including room and board at residential four-year colleges and universities would be a huge component in allowing foster youth to stay in school for four years and graduate.”

“We already know that such a low percentage of foster youth are making it to college — so few foster youth are even graduating from high school,” she said. “And the majority of foster youth actually attend community college, at least for their first two years. So the number of college students in need of room and board may not even be that great.”

Language providing for such waivers was added via amendment to a bill from Rep. Dave Hickernell, R-Lancaster, during the 2017-18 session. The bill passed the House, but was never taken up by the Senate for a vote.

Similar language was not included in the legislation Hickernell introduced this year that was eventually folded into a budget-enabling school code bill.

The provision was removed to make the bill more palatable, Nadia Mozaffar, a staff attorney at the Juvenile Law Center in Philadelphia who helped draft the legislation, told the Capital-Star. It’s something the center still supports.

“We know that even after tuition and fees are waived there’s still a lot of unmet financial need that people in foster care face,” she said.

There’s another change Pennsylvania lawmakers could make to benefit more foster youth.

The federal government allows states to lower the age of eligibility for Chafee grants to 14, rather than 16. In Pennsylvania, eligibility for a tuition waiver matches the Chafee standards.

Lowering the age would help children and families plan for the future, Mozaffar said, and prevent an unintended consequence — delaying adoptions until kids are old enough for a tuition waiver.

The new law as written also requires each college and university in Pennsylvania to establish a point of contact for foster youth. Some schools, like Penn State, already provide extra supports for this population.

The Field Center is helping 17 post-secondary institutions establish or maintain “campus-based support programs,” Wasch said.

“The program is a hug. It’s a home. It’s a place that operates programs and services to ensure that foster youth maximize their chances of being successful in college,” she said. Services can include counseling, case management, social outings, and year-round housing.

Wasch used the example of a foster youth from a group home who’s starting college.

“When the roommate is hanging their Christmas lights and hanging photographs of their family, you have a foster youth literally dropped off by a case manager,” she said. The support programs may provide a mentor who can greet the student and help get them settled.

The programs support “not just the academic and financial but the holistic needs” that young people from the foster care system have, she said.

Associate Editor Sarah Anne Hughes covers the governor and Pennsylvania's agencies. Before joining the Capital-Star, she was the state capitol reporter for Billy Penn and The Incline, and a 2018 corps member for Report for America. She was previously managing editor of Washington City Paper, editor-in-chief of DCist, and a national blogger for The Washington Post.

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