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College aid a game changer for foster youth, but many don’t apply

Melanie Ramirez-Carpio, center, of San Francisco State University helps two foster youth.
Ana Homonnay/courtesy John Burton Advocates for Youth
Melanie Ramirez-Carpio, center, of San Francisco State University helps two foster youth.

Advocates are trying to reach as many high school seniors in foster care as possible before a key financial aid deadline next month.

Xavier Mountain knows how important that outreach can be. Put into foster care at the age of two, by the time he graduated from high school in Stockton, California he knew he wanted to go to college but had no significant help from the adults around him.

“I didn’t even know about financial aid; I got into community college just lost and I was wondering how to fund my education,” he said.

Within that first year he applied for and received financial aid. He went on to earn his bachelors’ degree and is now a graduate student in social work at the University of Southern California.

But it’s hard for him to forget how angry he was at the time because the adults in the foster care system and in school pushed college enrollment but didn’t back it up by helping him fill out applications.

“There’s no one who is shepherding a foster youth through that college application process," said Amy Lemley, executive director of John Burton Advocates for Youth. "The counselors in public schools often have six hundred to a thousand students per counselor."

The non-profit group is stepping up a campaign to give information to high schools and county offices of education in order to convince more foster youth to apply for financial aid before the March 2 to apply for federal and state aid, known as FAFSA.

The effort comes as public schools and colleges are being held to account for the success, or lack thereof, of foster youth and other populations.

Only half of California foster youth enrolled in community college received federal Pell grants, even though they're fully eligible, Lemley said. Only 9 percent of foster youth received CalGrants, which is the state's largest financial aid program. 

And that lack of aid has consequences. "There’s an absolute direct relationship between receipt of financial aid and college retention,” Lemley said.

A new law went into effect last month that compels county officials to designate an adult to help foster youth apply for college and financial aid. That person can be the youth's case manager, a school counselor, or a court-appointed advocate.

Educators believe it’s an important requirement.

“I can help a foster youth student complete a FAFSA application 15 minutes,” said Catalina Cifuentes, executive director of college and career readiness for the Riverside County Office of Education.

Completing applications for foster youth is easy, she said, because they’re under court supervision and therefore don’t have to provide their parents’ financial or identifying information.

She doesn’t believe the new law goes far enough to ensure that one person is responsible for helping foster youth.

“I would have preferred the case manager,” she said. “They’re the ones who see [foster youth], they’re the ones responsible for them.”