Foster youth say free college helps, but more could be done to help them succeed

Just over a year since the Nevada System of Higher Education approved a fee waiver that allows foster youth to attend Nevada public college, 66 students have used the waiver. During a presentation on Friday, the Board of Regents received praise for the waiver alongside recommendations for improving the program and other foster youth support services.

“[The waiver] has been a huge financial help that has impacted me in a positive way. I am able to complete my associate’s degree,” said Truckee Meadows Community College student Aveleyra Pineda. “However, being a parent and maintaining childcare has been an issue and a worry for me.”

Pineda said she thought that working toward her bachelor’s degree in criminal justice would get easier when her children went to preschool. But being unable to afford daycare might get in the way of finishing a bachelor’s degree before she turns 26 — the age when students are no longer eligible for the NSHE tuition fee waiver. Foster youth become eligible to apply for the waiver at age 14.

“Because former foster youth have such a hard time transitioning to adulthood, due to the challenges of being raised in the system, the current eligibility and age limit are somewhat difficult for us,” Pineda said, adding a request for the Board of Regents to consider raising the age eligibility to help students who enroll in college less than four years before that age 26 cutoff.

The Foster Youth Success Initiative has helped more than 70 students with tuition assistance and campus-based support services. The initiative also allowed the hiring of a statewide Foster Youth Ambassador, Laura Obrist, to help carry out the goals of the initiative — recruiting, supporting and seeing foster youth students through to graduation.

“Over the past few months, I have discovered [that] we need more robust processes for verifying foster care history for students who indicate that status on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or through other means,” Obrist said to the Board of Regents during her presentation on Friday.

As of fall 2019, NSHE institutions have collectively spent $129,059 on the foster youth tuition fee waiver. So far, Obrist has identified 266 enrolled potential foster youth across the NSHE system and verified that 77 of those students were in foster care, leaving 189 students who still need to be verified.

Currently, the primary way for institutions to know if a student is a former foster youth is by financial aid and waiver applications. In addition to more accurately pinpointing students’ needs and program funding needs, Obrist hopes that identifying the number of students with foster care history will help NSHE increase participation in the fee waiver program.

Obrist gave the presentation alongside Washoe County Independent Living Specialist Valerie Welsh, who acknowledged that NSHE’s initiative and its fee waiver have helped students break down barriers toward obtaining degrees, such as helping them to afford a used car to get to class, or allowing them to work fewer hours at their part-time jobs and pay better attention to their course work.

Welsh emphasized that potential students no longer qualify for regional foster care system services at age 21, which can be a difficult transition as they work through past trauma and mental health challenges, paying rent, securing a job and sometimes parenting.

“Many of these youth are not ready to explore post-secondary education when they turn 18. [But] because the services, with Washoe County and with the rest of the state agencies, end at age 21, many of them feel the pressures of enrolling early in school and trying to achieve as many credits as possible, because they lose that support at [age] 21,” Welsh said, seconding Pineda’s request to consider increasing the maximum age for the fee waiver eligibility.

Clark County Human Services Administrator Tim Burch, who also presented at the meeting, said that his office has been able to use revenue from marijuana licensing fees approved by the Board of Commissioners to provide services to youth over age 18 who have aged out of the foster care system. Burch also credited revenue from the eighth-cent sales tax passed in September with allowing the county to “carve out dollars,” for case management, housing services and workforce development.

According to Burch, foster youth are likely to end up homeless within two years of exiting the foster care system.

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