College support resources vary by state, and even where they do exist, how can foster children find them? Students who were wards of the court, as foster youth, prior to the age of majority in their state are classified as independent. Coupled with relatively low resources, they are most likely to be eligible to receive the maximum amount of Pell Grant funding. But many of these kids don’t worry about out filling out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). They worry about where to sleep at night safely, and where their next meal will come from. And even those who do make it through the FAFSA face new and often unexpected hurdles; more than half of colleges ask for additional documentation—unnecessarily—to verify ward of the court prior status and or homelessness, another qualifier for independence.
We need stronger pathways and clearer access to resources
It’s the job of higher ed leaders to create clearer pathways to, and more support with, these resources. For many foster students, “a cell phone is life.” It’s one of a few constants in a world that changes far too often, a way to keep in touch with old friends and family, keep track of time, and connect with opportunities and support networks. Researchers at UVA and the University of Pittsburgh School of Education recently found that text message nudges and alerts led to higher FAFSA completion rates. That’s a simple, and potentially transformative, way to help foster youth access critical resources.
And that’s just the beginning. We have a lot of the information we need to help foster youth; we just need to use it. High schools know who their foster students are, because that data has to be self-reported. Could they share the information with community colleges to help provide a clearer pathway from high school to college? Could community college be free for all foster kids? What about a virtual counseling center to help foster youth navigate the complex and confusing journey of financing their education? We already know their cell phones are lifelines—why not give them the tools on that phone to make a life-changing decision?
Those of us with the privilege of thinking big about ways to support foster youth have the obligation to do so and to act on it. I encourage my colleagues in the higher ed community to think about what we all can do to help: from major policy shifts to the smallest text message nudge.