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Wolf signs bill to aid foster care students

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Written by: RUSS O’REILLY Date: Aug 13th 2019

Starting in the fall of 2020, children who were in the foster care system will be able to go to college tuition free. Gov. Tom Wolf signed the Fostering Independence Through Education Act on June 28, which waives tuition for youth who were in foster care at age 16 or older, including those adopted.

Beginning in the fall of 2020, all colleges and universities will be required to offer tuition waivers for eligible students. The waivers, which also cover college application fees, can be used for up to five years or until a student reaches age 26.

Penn State student Demetrius Zaliwciw, 20, of Philadelphia said he was glad the bill passed to help encourage foster students like him to apply to college. “Last year, all of the costs, with tuition, room and board was about $30,000,” he said. “I was fortunate to receive scholarships and grants.”

He will be a third-year student at Penn State when he returns to campus at the end of the month. “When I was 10 years old, I was placed in foster care as well as my siblings because of neglect by my parents,” he said.

Zaliwciw said the high school he attended in Philadelphia was not top notch, but he excelled academically. “I always did well academically in school. I wanted to better myself. I did not want to be in the same place I was in life. It was hard at times to be in foster care.”

A combination of grants and academic scholarships has covered the entire cost of his education. But Zaliwciw may be an outlier among students who have come through the foster care system and are saddled with costs of college despite grants.

Research indicates that 70 percent of foster care youth aspire to go to college, yet they attend at less than half the rate of their peers, according to the Field Center for Children’s Policy, Practice & Research at the University of Pennsylvania.

The state Department of Education will start disseminating waiver information to recipients of the Pennsylvania Chafee Education and training grant under the Foster Care Independence Act of 1999.

Chafee grants currently provide students coming from the foster care system a maximum of $5,000 per year for college costs. But that often leaves much of the cost to be shouldered by the student. Room, board not included

When the tuition waiver proposal was first drafted about two years ago, it required colleges to provide free housing as well as tuition. There was concern expressed by some universities and legislators about the cost falling on universities. As a compromise, room and board was taken out of the bill.

Rep. Jesse Topper, R-Bedford, is on the House Education Committee. “The original version of the waiver legislation included the cost of everything. I supported that wholeheartedly. I think it’s a shame we had to scale it back. These are a small number of kids, and they are the responsibility of the state. Any chance we are able to give them is important. I would have liked to see the whole cost covered, but I am proud of the law that passed,” he said.

The bill originally only applied to public universities, which are funded heavily by state tax dollars as well as student tuition. But private universities voluntarily joined the discussion, Topper said. “Initially, we were talking just state universities. But private universities came to us. They wanted to get involved. They came to the table as stakeholders although they were not in the original language of the bill,” he said.

All Pennsylvania colleges and universities, including public, private, community colleges and state-related schools, will begin accepting the waivers for the fall 2020 semester.

The private Juniata College in Huntingdon County has a small segment of students who come from foster care, about 100 of the 1,500 student body, said Tracie Patrick, director of student financial planning. “This bill will definitely help them, “she said.

For the 2019-20 school year, the net cost including all expenses at Juniata College is $59,874. But with all grants and institutional funds considered, typically a student from the foster care system owes between $6,000 and $8,000 per year.

Students who are financially independent and come through the foster care system struggle to make up the difference. “They work several jobs,” Patrick said. “I know one student who works three jobs. They work to get themselves through because they don’t have parental support. It’s a double-sided coin. I’ve seen success stories with these students. They work their butts off and make it through. I think this definitely will help them.”

Schools to cover cost.

The cost of waiving tuition will fall on the institution. “Any time you discount tuition, it will have an impact,” Patrick said. “We will probably cover the cost by increasing their need-based grants.”

If they don’t work while taking classes, students with foster home backgrounds rack up student loan debt, said Jesse McLean, executive director for Western Pennsylvania Pressley Ridge, which provides foster services in Blair County.

But with the waiver, his hope is that more of a student’s federal and state aid and Chafee grants can be used for room and board while the waiver covers tuition costs. “I think it is tremendous,” McLean said. “It can truly give them a choice between life and poverty. A tuition fee waiver can cut the cost of education in half.”

Grant money can be concentrated on room and board now that the waiver can go to tuition. “You used to have to cover 100 percent through Chafee. Now those can go directly to room and board while the waiver covers tuition,” McLean said. “I know folks in Blair are excited about it. I think it will help youth in Blair by sheer essence of giving them the opportunity to be successful –at least half of their education will be paid for.”

Counseling critical.

Trauma comes with circumstances of children in foster care. McLean said counseling is a crucial service that universities should also provide “because the goal is not to get them to college, the goal is to get them to graduate from college,” he said. “The opioid addiction is hitting all kids hard in terms of kids going into foster care. Kids are going through things at no fault of their own, and they still have a dream.”

In addition to the financial aspect, the new law also lays down rules for improving retention of students from foster backgrounds.

Colleges must begin reporting to the department by June 30, 2021, and each year after, the number of students receiving Pennsylvania Chafee grants, the number of students who apply for the Fostering Independence through Education waiver program, the retention rates of students participating in the program and any unmet financial need of students in the program.

Penn State is among the universities that already have retention supports in place. The University’s Fostering Lions Program provides access to academic, social and emotional support, as well as logistical and financial support for foster youth throughout their time at Penn State.

Fostering Lions, which was first implemented last year, has helped Zaliwciw, he said. Combined with the financial stress of affording college, the transition to the academic rigor is also a challenge. “I struggled a bit academically. I was not used to the course load. I did not go to a top-notch high school. But I received help from tutoring for calculus, chemistry, physics,” he said.

Fostering Lions has also helped Zaliwciw by pulling him into interaction with other students in the same situation he was in. There were 10 students in the Fostering Lions Program last year, he said. The university finds them from among the Chafee grant recipients. “It benefited me. I’m on a campus with over 45,000 students and not many of them face the same situation I did,” he said. “It helps you cope with things.”