As much as USC students dread midterms and detest 8 a.m. classes, most are grateful for the opportunity to further their education. Now, if they imagine life where college was not an option financially, their future shifts dramatically. This is the mentality of foster children nationwide who are often more focused on how they will support themselves and secure a living wage job by the time they “age out” of foster care on their 18th birthday than getting a college education.
Approximately two-thirds of foster students do not attend college, and very few graduate. Even if they do choose to attend college, these students do not have the strong support system that a family provides during their turbulent first year away. Burdened with an enormous debt from tuition on top of this lack of support, many foster students drop out of college midway through their freshman year. If foster children went to college at the same rate as their peers, there would be 100,000 more foster youth enrolled in secondary education, according to Foster Care to Success.
Arizona has taken an incredible step toward helping foster children in this situation. Two years ago, former Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill granting free tuition for foster children at community colleges and state universities. Since then, enrollment of foster students in these universities has increased by 40 percent at Arizona State University, according to a university official. More than 3,500 13-17 year olds were in the Arizona foster system in 2014, which means that more than 700 of these students will soon “age out” of foster care.
With this bill in place, college is finally a feasible option for many former foster youth. Evidence suggests that further help will follow the grants. For example, program staff working at Arizona State University donated school supplies, toiletries and bedding to foster children who showed up at the school empty-handed.
It is vital that USC follow in Arizona State’s footsteps by providing free college tuition to foster children who age out of the system. In California alone, there are approximately 60,000 foster youth, a large percentage of whom will face adverse circumstances once they age out of the system. Investing in education is, hands down, the most effective way of reducing these obstacles. Higher education, which we often take for granted, could completely change students’ lives for the better. Foster youth “experience homelessness, incarceration, dependence on public assistance, unemployment and out-of-wedlock parenthood at disproportionately higher rates than their same-age peers,” according to Foster Care to Success. Thus, the cost to the state for free tuition would be less than the cost of the state-funded welfare programs that many of these foster children would be forced to rely on without an education.
Furthermore, because former foster children are statistically more likely to develop substance addiction, incarceration and medical costs will ultimately surpass tuition costs as well. From 1987 to 2007, national spending on incarceration increased by 127 percent, while spending on higher education saw only a 21 percent increase, according to Foster Care to Success. Overall, states spend four times more on incarceration alone than education, a statistic that could be altered if more foster children are educated.
It is also important to consider the social benefits that programs like these can have. Foster children move from home to home and school to school without making lasting friendships. The chance to attend college for four continuous years without interruption would allow these students to make perhaps their first true connections with both peers and faculty. This supportive network will encourage former foster children to enjoy college so that a higher percentage of them will remain in school until graduation.
Many of the positive effects from free tuition programs can already be seen. ASU reports that many students in its Bridging Success program are high-achieving and aspire to become leaders. Graduating from USC with no tuition debt via a program like Bridging Success, foster youth would have a far brighter future. An education at USC will equip these students with the skills, knowledge and Trojan Family connections to secure a well-paying job and start a better life for themselves and for their future children. This is how we can begin to break the cycle of poverty and neglect.