Foster Care to College: Online Resources

From national scholarships and state tuition waivers to housing assistance and on-campus programs, see where to find help getting to and through college as a former foster care youth.

Last Updated: 08/14/2020

Meet the Expert
JudiAlperinKing
Judi Alperin King

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Judi Alperin King is the founder and director of The Wily Network. Wily Scholars are promising students who are experiencing life challenges such as homelessness or foster care, or whose parents may be deceased, dealing with addiction, mental health issues, or incarceration. The Wily Network provides a critical safety net for these Scholars as they navigate college on their own. The Wily program offers weekly clinical coaching, financial assistance, community-building support, and networking opportunities to help them move from surviving to thriving.

Foster youth face unique challenges, especially those who are aging out of the system and are considering what comes next. For many, the goal is higher education. But the opportunity is often tough to grab and keep hold of. Without the traditional family support most of their peers have, applying to schools, affording tuition, finding college housing, and getting academic help can be incredibly difficult.

These challenges are apparent when you look at college graduation statistics. Studies show that nationwide, only 3 to 11 percent of foster youth earn a bachelor’s degree compared to the national completion rate of about 33 percent. The good news is that there are many resources out there designed to help foster youths succeed in their pursuit of a college degree or vocational training. In this guide, we highlight and show where to find the best of these resources, from financial aid and housing assistance to on-campus support programs and foster alumni groups.

Scholarships, Tuition Assistance, and Other Financial Aid for Foster Youth

Foster youth face an uphill battle affording higher education. But numerous scholarships, grants, tuition assistance, and other financial aid programs are in place to help.

Foster Youth College Scholarships

Scholarships are a very valuable form of financial aid because they don’t have to be repaid – that essentially makes them “free money” for students who receive them. But because they are such a great way to pay for school, they’re quite competitive. Let’s take a look at a few of the scholarships available for foster youth going to college.

ORGANIZATION

Umps Care Charities

AMOUNT

Up to $10,000

DEADLINE

5/15/2020 (Annual)

ELIGIBILITY

Prospective students must be less than 20 years of age and an incoming freshman, show financial need, and have been adopted at or after the age of 13.

HOW TO APPLY

The application will consist of three letters of recommendation, a high school transcript, four short answers/essays, and a copy of the student’s FAFSA Student Aid Report.

ORGANIZATION

Foster Care to Success

AMOUNT

Up to $10,000

DEADLINE

Applications are accepted throughout the year

ELIGIBILITY

Students between the ages of 16 and 49 who received foster care from Casey Family Services in Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, or Rhode Island. Applicants must be attending or planning to attend any post-secondary program, except PhD programs.

HOW TO APPLY

Applying for this scholarship requires signing up for an online account and completing an online application.

ORGANIZATION

National Foster Parent Association (NFPA)

AMOUNT

Varies

DEADLINE

4/5/2020 (Annual)

ELIGIBILITY

Applicants should be currently or previously in foster care through a U.S. child protection agency and be currently enrolled in a post-secondary institution.

HOW TO APPLY

The application is submitted online and requires an essay as well as proof of post-secondary enrollment.

ORGANIZATION

Michael and Susan Dell Foundation

AMOUNT

$20,000

DEADLINE

12/1/2020 (Annual)

ELIGIBILITY

Applicants need to participate in an approved college readiness program, show financial need, have a 2.4 minimum GPA, plan to enroll in an accredited bachelor’s degree program, and demonstrate a drive to succeed despite facing obstacles in life.

HOW TO APPLY

The first step requires completion of the online application. During the semifinal round, semifinalists will submit a Student Aid Report, online recommendation, and high school transcript.

ORGANIZATION

Foster Care to Success

AMOUNT

$2,500 – $5,000

DEADLINE

3/31/2020 (Annual)

ELIGIBILITY

Students who have been accepted or expect to be accepted into a Pell-eligible postsecondary school may apply. They must have been in foster care for 12 consecutive months leading up to their 18th birthday.

HOW TO APPLY

Complete an online application after creating an online account. Awards are based on a combination of financial need and academic and personal merit.

ORGANIZATION

National Foster Parent Association (NFPA)

AMOUNT

$500

DEADLINE

4/5/2020 (Annual)

ELIGIBILITY

Applicants must have a parent or supportive adult who is a member of the NFPA. Those planning to attend a four-year college must be a senior in high school. Students planning to attend a two-year school must be between the ages of 17 and 21.

HOW TO APPLY

Applications must be submitted online and include two letters of recommendation and an essay.

ORGANIZATION

Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, Inc.

AMOUNT

$25,000

DEADLINE

10/25/2020 (Annual)

ELIGIBILITY

Students who show financial need, overcame a substantial obstacle as a child or young adult, are pursuing a bachelor’s degree, and agree to attend the National Scholars Conference in Washington, D.C.

HOW TO APPLY

Application materials may be obtained and completed online; students must be U.S. citizens and have significant financial need.

ORGANIZATION

International Student Foundation (ISF)

AMOUNT

Varies

DEADLINE

3/31/2020 (Annual)

ELIGIBILITY

Must be a full-time student under the age of 24 and have aged out or will age out of foster care.

HOW TO APPLY

The application process requires completing the FAFSA and the online application, write an essay, submit proof of foster care status, provide a digital photograph, and get at least one letter of recommendation.

ORGANIZATION

The Nsoro Foundation

AMOUNT

Varies

DEADLINE

4/15/2020 (Annual)

ELIGIBILITY

To apply, applicants must have been in public or private foster care for 12 consecutive months leading up to and including their 18th birthday. Students must also be attending or planning to attend an undergraduate or graduate program.

HOW TO APPLY

The online application requires submission of ACT/SAT scores, proof of foster care status, and letters of recommendation.

ORGANIZATION

The Orphan Society of America

AMOUNT

Varies

DEADLINE

Varies

ELIGIBILITY

Applicants must be U.S. residents and have lost one or both parents due to an act of violence.

HOW TO APPLY

The online application requires a high school transcript. Applicants must be a junior or senior in high school, accepted into a post-secondary institution, and provide the necessary documentation to show financial need.

State and Local Scholarships for Foster Youth

National scholarships are not the only ones out there. Scholarships are also available through the state, local organizations, area businesses, and more. For instance, California College Pathways specifically provides scholarships for foster youth, as does the College Success Foundation of Washington State. Here are a few more options to consider:

  • State Department of Education
    (Find information specific to your state through this U.S. Department of Education site.)
  • State Child Welfare Agencies
    (Find a list of these agencies on this U.S. Department of Health and Human Services page.)
  • State Department of Social Services
    (This website from the Missouri Department of Social Services offers links to the DSS sites of all 50 states.)
  • High school guidance counselor
    They are there to help you find the resources you need to succeed not only in high school, but in the transition to college as well.
  • Financial aid office
    College financial aid officers have leads on a wide variety of scholarships and other financial aid that you might not find elsewhere.  
  • Social worker
    During your time in foster care, there were likely many social workers who followed your progress. Now is the time to reach out to them for help navigating the next steps in your life.

Foster Youth Tuition Waivers

One of the great ways to help foster youth pay for college is the tuition waiver. These waivers can cut down the cost to a very manageable amount and thus open up the doors to higher education.

Tuition waivers are offered by many states and provide for students who were in foster care, and the funds typically kick in after all other financial aid is accounted for. They cover some or all of tuition and other required fees to help lessen the financial burden of college. Each state has its own way of handling the waivers, so to apply, you’ll need to check with the state in which you reside or the state in which you plan to attend college.

Grants and College Financial Aid for Foster Youth

Federal and state grants are also a great way to pay for school. Like scholarships, grants do not have to be paid back. It’s important to note, however, that to receive most grants, students must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Since many grants rely on the FAFSA to determine financial need and thus eligibility, completing the FAFSA opens the door to voucher programs, Pell Grants, state educational grants, some scholarships, and more.

Federal & State Grants

Grants are funds designed to help pay for college, especially for those who demonstrate financial need. Since eligibility for grants depends upon financial need, students begin by filling out the FAFSA; this can then be used by the federal and state governments, as well as the schools themselves, to help determine how much a student should receive. Learn more about grants here.

Grants usually don’t have to be paid back; however, there are some circumstances, such as dropping out of school mid-semester, that could lead to a repayment request.

Education and Training Vouchers (ETVs)

The John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program helps foster youth with paying for school through the Educational and Training Vouchers program. ETVs are funded by the federal government in the form of grants, which can cover up to $5,000 per academic year. Generally, you’re eligible if you are likely to remain in foster care through the age of 18, a young adult of 18 to 21 who has aged out of the foster care system, or someone who was adopted or under kinship guardianship at age 16 or older.

Alabama


EDUCATION AND TRAINING VOUCHER PROGRAM (ETV)

https://navigator.alabama.gov/education/

FAFSA Assistance

Filling out the FAFSA isn’t all that straightforward for foster youth. There are several unique questions on the FAFSA that must be answered in a certain way to maximize your chances of getting the best financial aid awards. Since going it on your own can be quite confusing, there are several reputable sources out there to help you figure out this step.

College Admissions Help & Resources for Foster Youth

When it comes to the admissions process and getting into college, foster youth can benefit from additional assistance. Here’s an overview of some of the main challenges they face and where they can turn for help.

  • High-school academic support. 
    Without a firm support system in place to help kids remember to study, to focus on their homework, or even get extra help with concepts they don’t understand, their grades might not reflect the good work they can really do.
  • Standardized testing. 
    Many colleges and universities require the results of standardized test scores, such as the ACT or the SAT. Some coming out of the foster care system might not have had the opportunity to take the tests.
  • Filling out FAFSA. 
    The FAFSA can be complicated under the most straightforward of circumstances; those in foster care might have trouble gathering all the information they need to fill it out properly.
  • Actually applying. 
    Just as the FAFSA can be confusing, some applications can be as well. In addition, there might be an application fee, or they might need letters of recommendation that could be tough to find, especially if a student has moved around quite a bit.
  • Figuring out how to pay for it. 
    Once financial aid kicks in, there is often a bit more that needs to be covered, such as books. There are also incidentals, like something as simple as a lock for a bicycle, that can quickly add up.

The good news is that there’s help to overcome each of these obstacles. Here are a few ideas:

  • Turn to the foster care administrator. 
    Whether it’s local or state, these administrators are there to help ensure those in foster care get the help and encouragement they need.
  • High school guidance counselors. 
    Turn to guidance counselors to talk about writing college essays, ways to get your grades up, and programs available specifically for those in your unique situation.
  • Make plans to take the standardized tests. 
    The ACT and the SAT are often required by colleges; taking them is a matter of signing up, paying a fee, and showing up to the testing site at an appropriate time. Delve into the websites to find out more about options that might help you with these things.
  • Look to advocacy groups. 
    Local and state advocacy groups for foster youth are prepared to answer all sorts of questions about getting into college. Ask your social worker or advocate to point you in the right direction.
  • Talk to the college. 
    Speaking directly to the college, especially to the admissions office, can give you an opportunity to explain your unique situation. They can then find the tools and resources you need to make every aspect of admission a little easier.

College Housing Vouchers and Assistance Programs

When someone ages out of the foster care system, finding housing can be a difficult issue. When a student is accepted into college, housing assistance – often in the form of voucher programs – can help bridge the gap and make a living space on or off-campus more affordable. Here are some of the programs that can help.

HUD Programs

HUD is the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Several programs through HUD allow for assistance with housing, including for those who are transitioning out of the foster care system. There are three main programs offered under HUD that can help with this.

Chafee Foster Care Independence Program

This program awards up to $5,000 per academic year to students who are in foster care, aging out of the foster system, or have exited foster care through adoption or kinship guardianship at the age of 16 or older. Up to 30% of the funds a student receives through the Chafee program can be used to cover housing-related costs.

Many states have the responsibility of resourcing their housing funds for foster students through a variety of programs. For instance, California offers the Transitional Housing Placement Plus Foster Care program (THP+FC) that aims to help those below the age of 21 find proper housing. This can be in addition to or in conjunction with the Chafee program.

This page at Benefits.gov can help you decide if you qualify. 

Family Unification Program

Also known as FUP, this program is designed to promote better child welfare by ensuring families can find adequate and affordable housing, thus avoiding the potential entry of those children into the foster care system. It can also be of assistance to those youth who are aging out of foster care – this includes those between the ages of 18 and 21 who leave foster care at age 16 or older. The vouchers provide up to 18 months of rental subsidies. In 2012, about 14 percent of FUP recipients were used by youth. 

To determine if you qualify, contact your state or local public child welfare agency.

State Child Welfare Agency Websites
County and Local Child Welfare Websites

Foster Youth to Independence (FYI) Initiative

This is a federal program to help young adults (less than 25 years of age) who are about to leave foster care, but are at risk of becoming homeless. Operated by the U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), this program will provide special Tenant Protection Vouchers to public housing entities to allow them to help eligible youth for up to 18 months. These vouchers help individuals find housing they wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford. For foster youth not staying in housing provided by their schools, this can program can drastically reduce the cost of shelter while obtaining an education.

To learn more about the FYI Initiative, including eligibility requirements, please visit HUD’s FYI Initiative Tenant Protection Voucher page.

Financial Aid for Housing

Sometimes financial aid can help pay for housing while you’re in college. Here are a few of those options and how they work:

  • Scholarships and some tuition assistance: 
    These may also help pay for housing, particularly for campus housing. Certain scholarships might specifically spell out what they do cover, including room and board.
  • Housing Assistance Programs: 
    The programs listed above can help ensure you have a roof over your head during that transition from foster care to the college setting.
  • Foster Youth Programs or Centers at Individual Universities: 
    Most colleges and universities have programs in place specifically to help not only foster youth, but those who are at risk of becoming homeless. These programs or centers have a wealth of resources to help you find the best route to financial security and academic success.

Where to Turn for Help During and After College

The typical student in college will have support from all corners; however, foster youth are often an exception. They don’t necessarily come into college with that kind of support system in place, so they’ll have to work to create one of their own. This can include transitional, academic, mentoring, emotional, and social support. Fortunately, most colleges are very aware of the importance of supporting foster youth, and thus are well-equipped to help them become a success.

Campus Resources and Support

Many campuses offer direct support and strong resources for those aging out of the foster care system and moving into higher education. Excellent examples include the Fostering Success Initiative at the University of Houston, where students can find scholarships and transitional resources, and Fostering Success at Western Michigan University, where students can find two large programs that focus on mentoring and academic success. The support can be quite widespread; for instance, Campus Foster Youth Programs are available across all campuses of The California State University. Contact your university or ones you’re looking into to learn about the support available.

Mentorship and Professional Development

Foster youth might find themselves in a situation where mentors are tough to find. Higher education institutions recognize this and help bridge that gap by providing programs that focus on connecting foster youth with mentors, helping them network, and paying attention to their budding professional development. Most schools offer these programs as part of larger support programs, but there are also organizations that help schools focus their efforts. A good example is Ready to Succeed, which provides students with the tools they need to make their mark.

Advocacy Support Organizations and Resources for Foster System Alumni

Those who have been through foster or home care, gone to college or trade school, and come out with success to show for their hard work can be strong advocates and examples for those who want to do the same. Organizations like Foster Care Alumni can connect students with those who can lead them in the right direction. State Youth Advocacy Boards can also help students find the support and resources they need when in college and beyond, and serve as a way to connect with others who are in the same situations.

Additional College Success Resources for Foster Youth

Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute: Foster Youth Internship Program

Foster Care Alumni of America

FosterClub: Young Leaders Program

FosterMore

Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation: Housing Assistance for Youth Who Have Aged Out of Foster Care

Project Life: Housing

Ready to Succeed

Represent: College

Together We Rise

YouTube: Foster Youth Face Extreme Barriers to College. Here Is One Program That’s Helping

Q&A with the Expert

JudiAlperinKing

Judi Alperin King is the founder and director of The Wily Network. Wily Scholars are promising students who are experiencing life challenges such as homelessness or foster care, or whose parents may be deceased, dealing with addiction, mental health issues, or incarceration. The Wily Network provides a critical safety net for these Scholars as they navigate college on their own. The Wily program offers weekly clinical coaching, financial assistance, community-building support, and networking opportunities to help them move from surviving to thriving.

In your experience, what tends to be the most difficult issue foster youth face as they prepare for college?

At the Wily Network we work with students who have experienced foster care as well as those with similar experiences but who were never identified by the system. In both situations the students often arrive on campus by themselves without the dorm supplies they need and many without the clothes they need. They immediately feel like the “outsider” even to those who are economically disadvantaged. Even the poorest students tend to have a champion supporting them even if it is from a distance: someone who is contacting them to see what their dorm room looks like or who they sat with at dinner the first night. The first night of college is often the first moment our Scholars feel they don’t belong and must fight the urge to leave.

Almost everyone has a family and most all of those who have experienced foster care are no exception. Students are often trying to focus on being a student while relatives, who had been previously unable to parent them, are leaning on them for emotional support and many times asking for money. It is particularly challenging when the student has siblings and the student is in fear that their siblings are not being taken care of properly. Many find the distance between themselves and their siblings intolerable. This experience is in sharp contrast to their peers who have families to send care packages, call, visit, read papers and provide safe, supportive and comfortable homes for their siblings.

The lack of meal plans is another critical marker for students on their own. Financial aid packages may not include a meal plan and students can be left to provide food on their own without an income. Yes, many schools have food pantries that can assist students with basic food needs yet it is another divider. Students belong in the dining halls where they can develop lifelong relationships over long meals and the opportunity to learn about social activities, clubs, and other college events. Isolating any student from the dining hall is problematic, but for these students the isolation is devastating.

Among the many other differentiators, the lack of housing over school breaks is a constant worry for students. How do you study for exams when you don’t know where you will go over the Thanksgiving break? Some colleges will provide housing over breaks if students go to the housing office and explain their situation to a stranger or to put the intimate details of their lives down on a form. This dispassionate invasion of privacy is something many students are unwilling to do.

Getting into college is one thing; staying in is another. What advice can you provide for foster youth who are struggling with college life?

The ideal situation is to find a higher education support program for students who have experienced foster care on the student’s college campus. Many colleges have programs and asking at student affairs would be a good place to start. If there is no program, students can ask to be introduced to other students navigating college under similar circumstances.

If there is a program, students should connect with that program prior to arriving on campus. A robust support program will be able to anticipate some of the students’ obstacles on campus, and at worst students are likely to find a sympathetic college administrator who can be a resource throughout their college career.

Students should go to the financial aid office and career center before the fall break of their Freshman year. Knowing someone in the financial aid office can help them anticipate some of the requirements to continue with their financial aid throughout school. They will also likely be aware of additional grants and scholarships that might be available to the student. Should unexpected challenges with finances arise, having a connection with someone in the financial aid office could be an integral resource to continuing their education.

It is never too early to go to the career center. This is a place where students can easily be turned off by expectations that students can lean on family for social capital, housing and career advice. It is challenging, but they will need to be clear in the beginning that internships/jobs must be paid or housing and food security must be provided.

Learning how and when to tell (or not tell) their story can be an empowering aspect of one’s college experience. It is particularly true for students who have experienced a traumatic and complicated childhood. Fielding questions about parents, siblings, living situations and school breaks are fraught with emotional consequences and it can help to practice.

Many college-bound students run into problems with the FAFSA, and foster youth might see more problems than others, given their unique situation. What can make the process easier?

The first step in managing Financial Aid at college is to find someone that students feel they can trust, preferably in the financial aid office. They can help set a calendar of deadlines, identify new scholarships and make sure the student understands the consequences of loans.

Many of these students arrive at college still legally in their parent(s) custody and they must still collect tax returns from those parents. This can be quite complicated and can result in a student pursuing a dependency override, a legal action that grants the student financial and legal autonomy from their guardian. This is a complicated process and emotionally grueling, but for some, it makes all the difference.

Careers and Volunteering in the Foster Care System

Many who have been in the foster care system find that as they grow older, they want to help those who are still in the system. Anyone who knows someone who has gone through the foster care world might also have a strong desire to step in and help as many as possible. To that end, there are several careers where former foster kids – and those who love and support them – can help every single day.

Social Workers

Social workers often work directly with foster care agencies, guardian ad litem, attorneys, and other professionals who work with foster youth. Social workers are often the front-line individuals who deal directly with children in foster care, and can help with everything from finding the proper resources to working with law enforcement to make sure the child remains safe in their foster home. They might also help work with the reunification of families if that scenario is possible.

Psychologists

Psychologists work closely with other professionals to help ensure the mental health and well-being of individuals, including those who are in the foster care system. Psychologists might have many duties where foster care is concerned, from conducting therapy sessions with foster youth, handling family counseling sessions, speaking as a professional expert in court cases, and helping social workers and other professionals follow up on the mental health of foster youth and families throughout their years in the system.

Teachers

Teachers play a very valuable role in the lives of children of all ages, but they might be especially important for children in the foster care system. In addition to the high-quality education and assistance teachers provide to all students, they are also some of the first people who might spot problems that could lead to a child needing help from social services and the foster care system. Teachers often take the time to provide extra tutoring for students who might fall behind, and they can serve as a solid, sturdy force in a world that might be constantly changing for a growing child.

Volunteering

Not ready to jump into a career in the foster system? Volunteering with kids is a great way to get involved with youth who need your help in a wide variety of ways. From tutoring students to mentoring young adults to serving as a person for foster kids to talk to during the rough times, you can make an enormous difference in their lives. Two of the most well-known volunteering opportunities come from Big Brothers Big Sisters of America and Boys & Girls Club of America, where mentoring and is the name of the game.