A Path to College and Self-Sufficiency for New York’s Foster Care Youth

David R. Jones, The Urban Agenda

As part of an agenda aimed at combating poverty and income inequality, Gov. Cuomo wants state lawmakers to support spending $40 million on income subsidies to boost employment of black and Latino youth. He has also proposed a college student loan forgiveness program for low-income individuals with high debt.

The two initiatives are part of a broader effort to address what the governor called “stubborn economic and social problems that have persisted for decades,” and includes funding supportive housing and rental assistance for the homeless, developing more affordable housing statewide and bolstering safety net programs.

Given the high unemployment rates for black and Latino young adults, the governor is right to invest resources in helping this population enter the workforce. It also makes sense to help college graduates avoid falling further into debt before they’ve had a chance to establish a career. Of course, the challenge with so many of these kinds of initiatives is scaling them up to meet the need. For example, one could make a valid argument for spending $40 million alone on a jobs program in New York City where we have 170,000 disconnected youth -- men and women between the ages of 18 and 24 who are neither working nor in school.

Missing from the governor’s agenda, however, is an action plan to help some of the neediest young people of our state -- foster care youth – become self-sufficient by obtaining a college degree.

Fostering Youth Success Alliance

This month, my organization issued a report commissioned by the Fostering Youth Success Alliance that proposes ways to help foster youth increase their rates of college enrollment, retention and graduation. It calls for a statewide program to ensure that our foster youth have the necessary financial, educational and social supports to succeed in college. 

New York State is home to approximately 20,000 young people living in foster care. In 2012, about 4,000 youth between the ages of 18 and 21 were either still in care or exited the system. The majority of these young people enter adulthood at a significant disadvantage. They must overcome the instability of multiple home and school placements, the lack of emotional and financial support from parents, and the fear of aging out of the foster care system at age 21 with no support system to fall back on.

As a result, they are likely to face significant challenges over their lifetimes in obtaining good paying jobs and escaping lives of poverty and dependency. Our research further suggests that the chances of foster youth completing college is far lower than for public high school graduates in the state overall, and considerably lower than for low-income youth who have not been in foster care.

Consider the story of Mary Brown, 27, who was raised in foster care. From age 12 until she aged out of foster care Mary lived in various groups homes.  After graduating from high school in 2006, she enrolled in John Jay College for Criminal Justice. However, she dropped out after completing three semesters. Paying for college was not the reason; as a foster child Mary was able to access enough aid to attend college. Instead, she was concerned about where she would live and how she would support herself once she aged out of foster care.

“I heard a lot of horror stories about what happens to people who age out of foster care. That they wind up in shelters or homeless. I was thinking about that more than my classes,” said Mary, who re-enrolled in Bronx Community College and hopes to earn her associate degree in 2016.

Reversing a Dismal Trend

Adulthood outcomes for foster youth who don’t have the opportunity to enroll in college are bleak. About a quarter of foster youth will experience homelessness within the first four years of aging out of the system. Only half will be employed by age 24. And within two years of exiting foster caser one in four will have some experience with the criminal justice system.

New York has an opportunity to reverse this trend.  In states across the nation, universities, child welfare advocates, and state legislatures have worked together to ensure foster youth have what they need to succeed in college.  New York should follow suit by funding a College Success Initiative for its foster youth. This initiative should guarantee that every foster youth has the information, financial aid, and on campus supports they need to enroll in and thrive at college.  At the core of this program should be a strong advisement or coaching component so every foster youth has a resource to assist them with the unique challenges of being a foster youth in college. For a relatively small cost, the benefits to these young people would be immense. The increased tax revenue and decreases in public expenditures would save the state millions of dollars. And the whole state benefits when more of our young people are able to obtain college degrees, and thereby find better paying jobs.

Issues Covered

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