Saturday, March 8, 2014
The 18-year-olds who “age out” of the foster care system each year wind up making critical life decisions — finding housing, getting a job, buying food and clothing — much earlier than their peers who grow up with at least one parent. There is one option, though, that former foster youths don’t often pursue: higher education. Fewer than half graduate from high school; of those who do, only 2 percent get college degrees.
A program called College Step Up hopes to change that. A collaboration between the Good Will-Hinckley organization and Kennebec Valley Community College, College Step Up provides the emotional, financial and logistical backing that former foster kids — like all young people — need as they embark on higher education.
Since Maine is looking to encourage young people to get the credentials they need to compete in the workforce, it should do all it can to support College Step Up. It’s a program with the potential to pay off both for our state and for young people who have a lot to give.
A lot of factors play into success in higher education. Students need the money for tuition and books and a safe, stable place to live. They need help filling out admission and financial aid forms, and adults who will offer guidance and sympathy. Former foster kids don’t have a family to count on for any of these things.
That’s where College Step Up steps in. Started with a Finance Authority of Maine grant, it provides year-round housing on the campus of the former Good Will-Hinckley Home for at-risk youth; transportation to Kennebec Valley Community College, where students take classes, and help securing financial aid so students graduate with little to no debt.
Students also are coached on study and life skills (such as personal finance) — not to mention building relationships with adults who care about whether they succeed. Two young people are enrolled now; KVCC and the Good Will-Hinckley organization hope to expand it to serve 10 to 15. Good-Will Hinckley also runs a charter school that is separate from College Step Up.
If all that sounds expensive, consider the cost of doing nothing to support these young adults: per person, $300,000 on average during their lifetimes in public assistance, incarceration and lost wages. This adds up to $7.8 billion spent by communities and taxpayers, according to a recent study.
The state has a role to play in furthering the aims of College Step Up. The Department of Health and Human Services should do more to make foster kids aware of the option to stay in care after 18 and get the financial support available to students. And lawmakers should support a DHHS budget that allows for reasonable monthly allotments for College Step Up students in extended care.
Young people in foster care have faced a lot of instability and trauma in their lives. But their experiences also have bred resilience, a useful quality for anyone who wants to learn and grow. State support, along with Good Will-Hinckley’s private fundraising, is crucial to foster kids in College Step Up as they seek to beat the odds, develop their skills and contribute to the community.