“Over the past year, students have been disconnected, demoralized, and deprived of a full education”, says Amy Lemley, JBAY executive director. “High school seniors may be the worst affected. They not only lost out on their final year of school but also missed the traditional transition points to post-secondary education. This is especially hard for foster youth who can’t learn about applying to college from family. That’s why JBAY is working to ensure that we take what could be the worst year for college enrollment and make it into the best year.”
Foster youth face many obstacles to their education. Children only enter foster care after being abused or neglected. The foster care system often compounds their trauma through multiple placement changes, resulting in frequent transitions to new schools. By age 26, just 8% of foster youth achieve a bachelor’s degree, compared with 46% of the general population.
The lack of support in completing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) has been a key factor holding foster youth back. High school seniors who complete FAFSA are twice as likely to enroll in college within 12 months as those who do not.
JBAY started to address low rates of FAFSA completion among foster youth in 2017 by launching the California Foster Youth FAFSA Challenge. Since then, the rate of FAFSA completion for high school seniors in foster care in California has increased from 45% to 65% for 2019-2020, exceeding the 57% rate for all California high school seniors.
COVID is threatening that hard-won progress.
The start of the 2020-21 school year saw a 13.1% decline in first-time student enrollment at community colleges nationwide. This year, California’s rate of FAFSA completion by March 1, 2021, was down to 31% compared to 42% at the same point last year.
JBAY’s own tracking shows a similar decline for foster youth state-wide but with huge differences between counties. While some California counties have actually improved their FAFSA completion rates for foster youth this year, others have seen declines of 50% or more.
JBAY is therefore adding a new incentive in the worst affected counties: a $50 gift card for foster youth who complete their FAFSA. A San Diego County pilot program using gift cards saw the FAFSA completion rates more than double.
That’s why JBAY is doubling down on the FAFSA Challenge. Last year, 65% of graduating seniors in foster care completed their FAFSA, exceeding the rates for their non-foster peers for the first time. This year the goal is 70%.
“We know that college is one of the surest pathways to successful careers and financially secure lives,” Ms. Lemley noted. “By strengthening our efforts now, JBAY can make sure that a lost year of education doesn’t become a lifelong loss.”