Jessie, a 24-year-old former foster child, was home taking care of her 4-year-old son who was sick, but told the Nevada Board of Regents through a proxy that she hadn’t spoken to her parents in nine years, and had to work, do an unpaid internship and attend school full-time.
She’s been on a waiting list for a child care subsidy for four years, and has racked up $60,000 in student loans with one semester left to go in her social work degree program at the University of Nevada, Reno.
Days like Thursday, when regents were discussing a plan to waive tuition for children formerly in foster care, were particularly hard. When she has to miss work to take care of her son, she loses $120 a day in wages.
“I figured this was the only way to give my son a better life than I had,” she said about pursuing a degree in spite of the grueling schedule. “If this program could help me for my last semester and possibly offset some of my student loan debt, it would change my life for myself and my son.”
Regents ended up voting unanimously to approve the Nevada Foster Care Fee Waiver initiative, which will allow students who have aged out of the foster care system to register for credits without registration fees and certain lab fees. Assuming 20 percent of foster youth continue to college — an estimated 47 students statewide — the program is estimated to cost the Nevada System of Higher Education $115,000 for the first cohort in the first year.
It will begin in earnest in January and include a mentorship program for participants. Nevada is the 29th state to implement a foster care waiver.
“These students face incredible challenges, through no fault of their own, having lost families, homes, and hope for a brighter future,” NSHE Chancellor Thom Reilly said in a statement. “This initiative can give access to higher education, opportunity, and a better future to an underserved group of people in our state.”
The program applies to students who have graduated high school or an equivalent, completed the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and are under the age of 26. A similar waiver already exists for members of the Nevada National Guard.
NSHE officials noted that the initiative could help close a large achievement gap for former foster children. Madison Sandoval-Lunn, a member of the Foster Care Alumni of America Nevada chapter, outlined some of the challenges faced by former foster children like herself.
“The research tells us that 70 percent of youth in foster care have an interest in pursuing a higher education, however, less than 20 percent will enroll and less than 5 percent will go on to graduate with a four-year degree,” she said. “On average, it takes nearly eight years for a former foster youth to graduate with a bachelor’s degree.”
She cycled through seven different foster homes in seven years before she ultimately graduated from UNLV with a bachelor’s degree in 2014.
“Even with a combination of scholarships and student loans, I had to overcome periods of homelessness and hunger,” she said. “Unlike my fellow college peers, I couldn’t call home to my parents during winter break when students are kicked out of their dorms or when I had no food in the fridge.”
A public commenter who has adopted five children through the foster care system also urged regents to support the program, saying it would help people like her 16-year-old son who struggles with previous trauma.
“If he on his own, without an adoptive family, had to navigate how to take care of college and tuition, he would not have that capacity to be able to do that,” said Carly Souza, director of Fostering Hope, a foster care-focused ministry based at Hope Church in Las Vegas. “So I feel like having this is place would give him and kids just like him the support that they need to go on and be successful and have a future where otherwise the future might look quite grim.”