Beginning this month, Oregon's foster youth will receive free college tuition thanks to a new bill that was introduced not by legislatures or lobbyists, but the foster students themselves.
The Tuition Waiver Bill (HB 3471) will make those who have spent at least a year in foster care after the age of 16 eligible for the waiver, which will cover all tuition and extra fee costs, with the goal of encouraging more foster youth to attend college. Only 2.5 percent of foster students in Oregon earn a four-year degree, compared to 19 percent of the general population, according to Children First For Oregon. Lawmakers estimate that over 240 kids will take advantage of this program by 2013.
"Not only does it help foster youth financially, it also helps with the hope of going to college," said Nicole Stapp, program coordinator of the Oregon Foster Youth Connection (OFYC) and one of the students who worked to pass the legislation.
Kids in foster care have more difficulty getting loans for college tuition than their peers because many don't have someone to serve as a co-signer. For those who apply for financial aid, 65 percent of their applications are held up while their orphan status is verified. Often this takes such a long time that they end up at the end of a long line of financial aid applications, according to Children First for Oregon. Because schools require full tuition payment before authorizing class registration, the students are late to begin classes and can't pay for their books and other fees.
In October 2010, 25 members of the OFYC came together to identify the most pressing issues to the 14,000 foster youth in Oregon. They decided their biggest need was a free higher education.
The group looked at other states, like Texas, which had already passed a bill providing tuition vouchers to kids in foster care. At least 16 other states offer similar tuition vouchers, according to Children First for Oregon.
When the vouchers were first available at Texas State University in the fall of 2004, only one student used the program, according to university records. But by the fall of 2010, 77 students had enrolled with vouchers.
"It seems like since the tuition vouchers have been in place, every year we've seen a significant increase in the number of youth using them," said Toni Watt, associate professor of sociology at TSU, who has been focusing on foster youth at the university. "We're trying to understand not only how to get them here, but how to keep them here."
In February 2011, 12 foster students in Oregon started lobbying to get the tuition voucher bill into the legislative session.
"The hardest time was going to the legislators' offices and thinking it was going to be pleasant, but it wasn't always," said Jamie Hinsz. "Many saw the bill as an entitlement bill and thatís not the case at all. Legislators brought their personal stories and some thought that because they had difficult times they understood foster care, but it was completely different."
On June 21, 2011, the bill passed the Oregon Senate with a 25-4 vote.
"Every year, nearly 400 teenagers age out of Oregon's foster care system," Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum (D-Portland) said in a statement. "These brave young people must overcome many obstacles in life and are some of the least prepared to deal with the challenges of enrolling in higher education. Many don't have the family structure or emotional support to help them make the transition to college and the costs associated are unrealistic. This bill will help former foster kids pursue college and a more promising future."
What the young people in Oregon have learned is maybe the most important lesson this organizing has to offer – that family can be a group of people unified by common purpose.
"Since we're in foster care, the idea of family is distorted, so we see the OFYC members as sisters," said Hinsz. "It's good to know they're taken care of."
Ryann Blackshere is a multimedia journalist with Fostering Media Connections, a San Francisco-based organization dedicated to improving the well-being of children in foster care.
[CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Oregon Foster Youth Connecttion as the "Oregon Foster Youth Coalition."]
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