School’s out for summer, giving many 2017 high school graduates two and a half months of eager anticipation of their first year of higher education. But many foster youth lacking the financial support or resources to make a college degree obtainable won’t get that opportunity. A majority of states are calling on their—public and, sometimes, private—institutions of higher education to help change that.

The latest numbers show that there are over 400,000 children in foster care in the United States and it is estimated that around 20,000 age out of the program each year. Recent estimates show that only 14% of foster youth in the United States will complete a bachelor’s degree in six years, while the completion percentage for all other students is double that at 31%.

States are trying to close this staggering gap by reducing or eliminating the financial burden of higher education for youth who have aged out of foster care. Currently, there are twenty states that offer tuition waivers for former foster youth seeking a higher education degree and eight additional states provide grants or scholarships to these youth.

The programs

Although each state’s program is different, there are some commonalities. Each state limits the waiver to universities located in the home state and requires that the student be in foster care until a certain age or number of years. While most state programs extend only to public institutions, a few—including New York and Tennessee—allow for grants or scholarships to attend private institutions within the state as well. Some states provide tuition, some provide tuition and books, and a few even provide tuition, books, and housing.

For example, under Arizona’s plan, to be eligible, former foster youth must:

  • Currently be in foster care and at least 16 years old, or have been adopted from foster care after age 16, or formerly have been in foster care past the age 16,
  • Reside in Arizona for tuition purposes,
  • Have personal assets of less than $10,000 dollars,
  • Be under age 21 when the first tuition waiver is awarded, and
  • Currently under 23 years old.

The tuition waiver can be applied at all universities under the jurisdiction of the Arizona Board of Regents or any community college in the district. The student also must complete 30 hours of community service per academic year and remain in good standing to be eligible for the waiver for the following years of their education.

The downsides

Unfortunately, there are drawbacks to the structuring of these programs. In some states, legislatures have been unable to reach agreements to fully fund them, leaving it to their already cash-strapped educational institutions to identify dollars for moving forward with foster student initiatives. And it’s been reported that too few people in the lives of this already-too-challenged student population are aware of the potential benefits of foster youth higher education funding programs. Finally, the programs aren’t set in stone; for example, Arizona’s law launching its 2013 five-year pilot program is set to expire in 2018.

What this means to you

These important programs offer a chance at higher education to an underserved population. We encourage institutions to consider the extent to which their missions call for supporting these programs further, such as by encouraging legislators to extend and fund them, finding additional funding and support sources within their communities, or even simply providing information to employees in order to spread the word. To see if your state has a tuition waiver program and what the requirements are, click here.