Richmond Public Schools seniors outside their graduation ceremony. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
Antania Goff remembers thinking, “This is my first step to changing my life,” when she opened her acceptance letter from St. Cloud State University.
Goff knew exactly what she wanted to do with her degree: Open a transitional home for teens in the foster care system. She dreamed of providing young people with the support she needed when she was younger, after entering foster care as a toddler and moving from home to home throughout her childhood and teen years.
But Goff had to delay that goal after her junior year of college. While she received some monthly payments through Minnesota’s extended foster care program, they didn’t cover all her living expenses. With no family to provide additional financial support or help her adjust to adult life, Goff was totally on her own.
Goff said her health suffered as she worked nearly full-time while taking a full class load, and she was exhausted from coping with the trauma of childhood abuse while managing her demanding day-to-day responsibilities. Her grades fell, jeopardizing her spot at the university.
“If something goes wrong, it falls on me. I’m all I’ve got,” Goff said. “Last spring semester, I just broke.”
Goff, now 22, is now taking a break from college to recover and consider her next steps — but she’s determined to be back at school before long.
Navigating college is especially difficult for students in foster care like Goff, who face a range of financial and institutional barriers on campus. Tuition grants and scholarships are available for these students, but having to work to afford rent and bills can make completing college nearly impossible.
Minnesota is hoping to make higher education more attainable with a new grant program starting in fall 2022 to cover college costs for young adults currently or formerly in foster care.
Advocates say the program could be a game-changer in helping more teens and young adults in foster care enroll in and complete college. But it’s not a panacea for the challenges these students experience in higher education, they say.
“This is a big win for young people,” said Nadia Mozaffar, senior attorney with the national Juvenile Law Center. “However, financial support is extremely important, but it’s only one type of support that any young person needs to be successful in college.”
Hoang Murphy, founder and director of the nonprofit Foster Advocates, which helped craft the Minnesota law, said the idea for the program came from students themselves. The organization started pushing for the legislation after hearing about their struggles to afford higher education, Murphy said.
The vast majority of students who have been in foster care want to go to college, studies show. But just a fraction enroll in higher education, and fewer than 10% graduate, compared to more than 50% of all college students.
A number of obstacles contribute to the low college attendance and graduation rates. At age 18, many state supports and services for teens in foster care stop, and as young adults they are disproportionately likely to face homelessness and food insecurity. Many can’t rely on savings from family members for tuition or find someone to cosign a loan, making paying for college impossible, Murphy said.
Minnesota’s new grant program will cover the full cost of attendance — which includes tuition, fees, room and board, meals and other living expenses — at public and most private colleges across the state. Minnesotans under 27 years old who were in foster care after age 13 are eligible if they are accepted to a participating college.
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The program also requires the state Office of Higher Education to raise awareness of the program and help students apply for the grants and other aid.
Thousands of aspiring college students in Minnesota could benefit. More than 4,900 teens ages 13 and older were in foster care in Minnesota in 2018, according to the most recent available data from the state. They accounted for nearly one-third of all children in foster care that year.
Murphy said the grants are a significant improvement over Minnesota’s existing higher education voucher program, which is open to people in foster care after 16 and capped at $5,000 per academic year.
Many students aren’t aware of the vouchers, Murphy said, and those who receive them are left to cobble together enough outside grants and scholarships to cover the rest of their college costs. That’s no small feat — the cost of attendance at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities was $28,000 last year, and $21,000 at Mankato State University.
“(The new program) really simplifies the process,” said Sen. Jason Rarick, R-Pine City, who authored the bill in the Senate. “(Foster youth) don’t have the supports that so many other kids have, so making the process easier is a big benefit.”
Rarick said there was bipartisan support for the proposal, which was included in the higher education budget and will receive more than $3.7 million in state funding each year. It seemed like a “common-sense thing, and the right thing to do,” he said.
Minnesota’s new program will provide some of the nation’s most comprehensive financial packages for students who have been in foster care, Mozaffar said. Thirty-five states offer aid for students in foster care, but many only cover tuition.
The grants are an important step, but Minnesota could do more to support college students currently or formerly in foster care, said Jacob Gross, a University of Louisville professor who studies these students’ experiences in higher education.
Limiting the program to teens in care after age 13 — the same age requirement set by the federal government for aid — seems arbitrary, Gross said. Minnesota should also follow the lead of states like California and Michigan, which provide academic and emotional support as well, he said.
“The new Minnesota program can certainly help youth, but it has to be part of comprehensive support the student receives,” Gross said.
Goff said she was elated to hear that the bill was signed into law. Not only will the financial support be life-changing for her peers, but it sends a message of hope to people in foster care, she said.
For Goff, that message says, “There are better opportunities for you now, and for the generation after you. We want you to be able to progress. And we don’t want you to be overwhelmed. We want you to be able to breathe.”
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