For the first time, California foster youth are applying for college aid at far higher rates than other high school seniors. Figures released today by John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) show that in 2019-2020, 64.5% of high school seniors in foster care submitted the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), exceeding the 56.6% rate for all California high school seniors. In previous years, foster youth completed FAFSA at far lower rates than their peers.
“For too long, far too many foster youth have been denied their dream of post-secondary education because they were unable to obtain the financial aid available to them,” said Amy Lemley, executive director of JBAY. “We therefore worked with our public sector partners to build a system designed for the specific needs of youth who don’t have family to help them. We are delighted that in only its third year, the FAFSA Challenge has transformed the situation for foster youth, moving them from far below the general rate of FAFSA completion to well above it.”
About 85% of foster youth say they aspire to go to college but by age 26 fewer than 8% have achieved a bachelor’s degree, compared with 46% of the general population. The California Foster Youth FAFSA Challenge, run by John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), overcomes one of the biggest barriers to college by ensuring that foster youth get all the financial aid that is available to them.
In 2017-2018, the first year of the challenge, just 45% of eligible foster youth submitted their FAFSA. This grew to 57% in 2018-2019, before reaching 64% in 2019-2020.There were big improvements all across the state; for example Los Angeles County has more than doubled its rate in just three years, with 613 out of 901 foster youth (68%) completing FAFSA this year compared to 33% two years ago. Studies have shown that 90% of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA go on to enroll in college within 12 months, compared to just 45% of high school seniors who do not complete the application.
JBAY teamed with the California Department of Education to sponsor the FAFSA Challenge, offering prizes and recognition for the counties with the highest completion rates for foster youth. Five county offices of education were named winners for their efforts this year:
- Very Small County: Shasta and Trinity, tied at 100% completion rate.
- Small County: Kings at 94%.
- Medium County: Fresno at 94%, with an honorable mention for Tulare at 93%.
- Large County: Riverside at 78%.
“Completing the FAFSA and qualifying for student aid will have a huge impact on the lives of each one of these students and the community as a whole,” said Yali Lincroft of the Walter S. Johnson Foundation, which helped fund the FAFSA Challenge. “Post-secondary education can help these young people avoid poverty and homelessness, and open the door to a rewarding career and happier life”. The effort also received funding from the Stuart Foundation, Pritzker Foster Care Initiative and Conrad N. Hilton Foundation.
As a result of the success of the FAFSA challenge, JBAY is now advocating for legislation that would institutionalize this proven approach. California Senate Bill 860, authored by Senator Jim Beall, would improve FAFSA completion rates among foster youth. SB 860 was passed unanimously by the senate in June, and is now being considered by the state assembly. “This bill would help those students who need financial assistance for higher education get the financial support they need to create new opportunities for success, now and in the future,” says Lemley.