Lawmakers review use of tuition waivers by former foster youth

Texas lawmakers this interim are considering ways to increase enrollment and retention of the state’s former foster youth in higher education. Relatively few complete post-secondary education, despite a Texas law that entitles certain former foster youth to free tuition and fees at public colleges and universities, according to testimony in September at a joint session of the House Human Services and Higher Education committees.

Former foster youth are eligible for the tuition and fee waiver under Texas Education Code, secs. 54.366 and 54.367. The law authorizes exemptions from tuition and fees for certain students who have been under the conservatorship of the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), including some adopted students who were formerly in foster or residential care. Those who qualify for the waiver under sec. 54.366 must use it in some capacity by age 25 to gain lifetime eligibility. Students eligible for the waiver under sec. 54.367 do not face any age restrictions but must maintain a minimum GPA and not complete excessive credit hours.

Some additional federal, state, and institutional support is available to promote enrollment and success of former foster youth in higher education. The Education and Training Voucher is a federal stipend of $5,000 per year for eligible former foster youth to use for housing, books, or other needs. In Texas, certain foster youth who will “age out” at 18 may elect to remain in foster care longer if pursuing education or employment by participating in the state’s Extended Foster Care program. Educational and transitional programs at various levels, such as the Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) and Preparation for Adult Living programs, offer training and support to help prepare foster youth to leave the system. Several of the state’s public higher education institutions also have support services or staff dedicated to helping former foster youth.

According to data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, about 3,700 students took advantage of the tuition waiver in 2013, at a cost of about $9.7 million to the institutions. An estimated 11,000 individuals are thought to be eligible for the waiver, according to testimony at the hearing, although the precise number is not known. Witnesses recommended collecting data on the number who qualify for the waiver and on college completion rates and other success measures.

Witnesses said that among the challenges that may prevent former foster youth from attending college are the cost of housing and other needs, lack of life skills and access to mentors, lack of awareness of the benefit, and the unstable school and living experiences of many foster youth, which can affect high school completion and college readiness. Many youth leave foster care at 18 without a high school diploma or GED, according to DFPS data.

One solution discussed at the hearing was raising or removing the age limit by which some eligible individuals must activate the waiver. Witnesses noted that other states have similar policies with less strict age limits. Some suggested adding a question to college applications that would identify former foster youth so they could be informed about the waiver. Providing more liaisons at public higher education institutions also could support the success of former foster youth, witnesses said.

Witnesses also recommended subsidizing housing for former foster youth or expanding the state’s supervised independent living programs, a form of extended foster care in which individuals receive support services from DFPS while living more self-sufficiently. Lawmakers also suggested working with faith-based organizations to secure housing for former foster youth pursuing higher education.

Some at the hearing raised concerns about the cost to institutions of offering the waiver. Colleges absorb the costs, as they do with waived costs for veterans under the Hazlewood Act. Those present at the hearing also deliberated students’ access to the waiver regardless of citizenship status, as residency requirements for the exemption do not appear in statute.

(See video of the joint hearing of the House Human Services and Higher Education committees here.)

by Mary Beth Schaefer

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