New initiative helps foster youth apply for college financial aid

Although 85 percent of California’s foster youth want to earn a college degree, only 8 percent will finish an associate or bachelor’s degree before age 26. A new initiative from John Burton Advocates for Youth, in collaboration with the California Department of Education and the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, is looking to change those numbers.

The California Foster Youth FAFSA Challenge’s main goal is to increase the number of high school seniors in foster care who complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or the California Dream Act Application undocumented students. Students who submit these applications become eligible to receive financial aid at two- or four-year colleges.

Research has shown that 90 percent of high school seniors who complete the FAFSA go on to begin college within 12 months, compared to just 45 percent of high school seniors who do not complete the application. At a time when the cost of college is rapidly increasing, access to financial aid is an important part of preparing for college and boosting retention once students are enrolled at an institution of higher education.

“It was very easy to decide to participate in the FAFSA Challenge,” said Jessica Thomas, the program coordinator for San Luis Obispo County Office of Education’s Homeless and Foster Youth Services. “In fact, helping all graduating foster youth complete the FAFSA has been a goal of San Luis Obispo Foster Youth Services for the past three years.”

San Luis Obispo COE uses Foster Focus, a data collection tool, to identify which foster youth in their schools are high school seniors. A consultant collaborates with school district liaisons and high school counselors to meet with these students at their schools, and later meets with individual students at school, home or another convenient location to help them complete the FAFSA. Thomas and the consultant also collaborate with high school counseling departments to provide resources and strategies for cultivating a “college-going culture” for foster and homeless youth as early as ninth grade.

“The FAFSA Challenge is a project that fits seamlessly into what Fresno County is already doing,” said Pamela Hancock, foster and homeless youth education services coordinator for the Fresno County Office of Education. “We are not developing new systems, Fresno County is focusing on improving our system. … CA College Pathways is providing promotional and awareness materials for our distribution to all high schools, continuation high schools and charter high schools. The materials will be distributed to counselors and district foster liaisons and child welfare. The materials consist of posters and a Financial Aid guide.”

FAFSA applications completed through May 15 will be counted towards each county’s Challenge tallies, but students are encouraged to file their applications before the March 2 deadline to ensure they are eligible for the maximum amount of aid.

As part of the Challenge, high school seniors who complete the FAFSA in participating counties will be entered into a drawing for 30 $500 scholarships. In addition, the counties with the highest completion rates will be awarded $1,000 grants for foster youth post-secondary success advocacy efforts.

County office of education Foster Youth Services Coordinating Program coordinators will have had to register for the Challenge by Dec. 31, 2017, and the large majority of county offices across the state have met this deadline. To check your county’s eligibility and for more information on the Challenge, visit