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JBAY Helps High School Seniors Overcome A Year of Closed Schools

“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.”

Governor Signs Law To Improve Foster Youth Access to College Aid

Emmerald EvansGovernor Gavin Newsom signed new legislation late Monday to increase participation in college by foster youth by requiring state-funded agencies to assist foster youth in completing their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). A pilot project by John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) showed that this type of assistance raised foster youth FAFSA completion rates from just 45% in 2017 to 64% in 2020.

“For too long, far too many foster youth have been denied their dream of a college education because they were unable to obtain the financial aid available to them,” said Amy Lemley, executive director of JBAY, which sponsored the bill. “By following the model of JBAY’s FAFSA Challenge program, this new law will help foster youth access tens of millions of dollars of additional aid.” 

While 85 percent of foster youth say they aspire to go to college, just eight percent achieve a bachelor’s degree by age 26 compared with 46 percent of the general population. Only 46 percent of foster youth entering community college receive the Pell Grant and just 12 percent receive the CalGrant, despite the vast majority meeting the income eligibility criteria for this financial aid. The primary reason for this gap is that these youth are not successfully completing the complex and often daunting FAFSA process.

Testifying in support of SB860, Emmerald Evans, a Youth Advocate for John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), told the Senate Education Committee that the new law “will allow foster youth to have a reliable support system to help them prepare for college despite the disadvantages that they may face. Having financial aid literacy as well as support to get through all of the necessary steps in the process is vital. As a foster youth, not having the typical family background, I don’t have access to the types of resources that families typically provide like being able to live at home, having access to reliable transportation and of course getting financial support from family for educational costs like books, supplies, a computer and living expenses. This lack becomes even more challenging when a crisis like COVID-19 happens.”

The new law goes into effect on January 1, 2021.

Foster Youth Outpace Peers in College Aid Applications for First Time

Bar chart: growth in FAFSA completion

Thanks to a campaign by John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), foster youth are accessing millions of additional dollars for college. In fact, JBAY’s FAFSA Challenge has been so successful that foster youth are now applying for college aid at far higher levels than their peers, after years of lagging behind them.

“My dream is to get a psychology degree and become a counselor,” says Toby Herrera, a graduating senior at Palmdale High School in LA County. When a foster care liaison in Toby’s school district told him to identify as a foster youth on his FAFSA, he gained access to many additional resources, such as the Chaffee grant that provides up to $5,000 per year. “Discovering all the resources available to foster youth through FAFSA has brought my dream closer to reality for me.”

While 85% of foster youth say they aspire to go to college, fewer than 8% achieve a bachelor’s degree by age 26, compared with 46% of the general population. The FAFSA Challenge helps foster youth overcome one of the biggest barriers to their college dreams. Studies have shown that 90% of high school seniors who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) go on to enroll in college within 12 months, compared to just 45% of high school seniors who do not complete the application.

In 2017-2018, the first year of the challenge, just 45% of eligible foster youth submitted their FAFSA. The completion rate has grown to 64.5% for 2019-2020, exceeding the 56.6% rate for all California high school seniors.

There were big improvements all across the state; for example, Los Angeles County, where Toby Herrera goes to school, has more than doubled its rate in just three years. This year, 613 out of 901 foster youth (68%) in LA County completed FAFSA, compared to 33% two years ago.

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.

 For more information, including which counties did best, read the FAFSA Challenge 2020 press release or visit the FAFSA Challenge page.

JBAY Supports Bill to Help Foster Youth Get Student Aid

Emmerald Evans

Foster youth struggle in higher education. By age 26, just eight percent of former foster youth earn a bachelor’s degree compared to 46 percent of the same-age population of young adults. One of the main stumbling blocks for foster youth applying to college is failure to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

A new bill in the California Senate aims to tackle this problem. Senate Bill 860, introduced by Senator Jim Beall, would require foster youth to receive assistance completing their FAFSA. 

Emmerald Evans, a Youth Advocate for John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), gave testimony to the Senate Education Committee in support of SB 860, on May 12.

Good afternoon Chairs and members of the committee and thank you for giving me this opportunity to share my experience with you.

My name is Emmerald Evans. I am 21 years old and currently a student at Sacramento State. I was raised in foster care from the age of five until I aged out at age 21. Throughout my foster care experience I attended about a dozen schools, which was challenging for me because my schooling was inconsistent. The content of the curriculum and teaching styles often varied and it was very hard to adjust when forced to move schools in the middle of the term. Moving this much also made it harder for me to develop consistent relationships, both with adult supporters and my peers.

As I concluded my high school years, I was not fully aware of my college opportunities and how to prepare for college, including applying for admission, taking tests like SATs and ACTs and crucially, applying for financial aid. Some barriers that I faced when applying for financial aid included not understanding terminology, not knowing how to access the documents that I needed to apply, and not even understanding the full scope of what financial aid was or its importance.

I was fortunate in that I was extremely self-motivated and was able to research a lot of these questions on my own, but I have seen many of my peers in foster care not have the capacity to pursue getting the necessary information to successfully complete the FAFSA.

This bill is very important because it will allow foster youth to have a reliable support system to help them prepare for college despite the disadvantages that they may face. Having financial aid literacy as well as support to get through all of the necessary steps in the process is vital. As a foster youth, not having the typical family background, I don’t have access to the types of resources that families typically provide like being able to live at home, having access to reliable transportation and of course getting financial support from family for educational costs like books, supplies, a computer and living expenses. This lack becomes even more challenging when a crisis like COVID-19 happens.

By designating the Foster Youth Services Coordinating Programs as the central entity to ensure foster youth have support with this process, this bill will have a significant impact on many foster youth and their ability to be successful in college.

 For more information on SB 860 and how to support it, see https://www.jbaforyouth.org/sb860/