Foster care children could receive free education

Students who spent their childhood in the Arizona foster care system may get a chance to attend universities without needing to pay tuition.

Senate Bill 1208 would develop a pilot program to grant tuition waivers to anyone who was in foster care at 16 and is an Arizona resident.

When foster children turn 18, they are released from the program in a process called “aging out.” Until that point, the state officially serves as their parents or guardians.

Once they age out, they no longer receive benefits from the state and are out of public care. Rep. Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, said it is often a struggle to make the transition from foster care to independence.

“They really have no family, no one to help them,” Alston said. “They really have nothing to help them get started.”

According to the website of the Arizona’s Children Association, a nonprofit organization that offers foster care and other programs, Arizona ranks 41st of all 50 states in overall child wellbeing. A chance at higher education could make the difference.

“These kids deserve a break, and we deserve to have these bright young kids as fully functional members of society,” Alston said. “There are a lot of reasons for us to want as many individuals as possible to have higher education.”

If SB 1208 passes, the Arizona Board of Regents will develop a five-year pilot program that gives free tuition to foster care students. Alston said that if the five year program is successful, it will likely be expanded.

23-year-old ASU alumna Nikki Lewis said the bill is a good first step in addressing the issue of foster children in Arizona, but it is missing some components.

Lewis was orphaned while she was in middle school but received a scholarship to attend ASU for her hard work in high school. She helped found Partnered for Success, a nonprofit organization that prepares children in foster care for aging out and potentially attending a university.

Lewis said a tuition waiver would be very valuable to these kids, but there needs to be a support system in place to ensure that they will be held accountable for their spending and living habits.

“If you work really hard to get that money to go to college, you will probably be more responsible with it,” Lewis said. “That’s probably of the biggest hurdles these kids face.”

Children in foster care are monitored closely and much of their life is controlled. Lewis said many of them miss out on periods of self-discovery that most children experience.

“There are periods of teenage rebellion and transitioning into adulthood that aren’t necessarily acceptable in foster care,” Lewis said. “A lot of those kids need that period, and I think they should develop programming to go along with it.”

Judy Krysik, associate director of the ASU School of Social Work, said other states have instituted similar tuition waiver programs that are accompanied by accountability.

“Michigan has been doing this for some time,” she said. “They have a support group to go along with the tuition. Tuition isn’t enough for some people.”

Krysik is a member of the Early Education Collaboration, which includes members from the Maricopa County Juvenile Court and Head Start programs. The Early Education Collaboration starts with kids as young as 3 in foster care and begins to educate them.

These young children are taught typical educational curriculum, but also learn financing and relationship skills that they will be able to utilize later in life. Krysik said that many children in foster care will become involved in drugs and criminal activity, often leading to incarceration.

“College education is important in deterring you from other things that aren’t healthy,” Krysik said.

Reach the reporter at jwthrall@asu.edu or follow him @jthrall1