By the time Corey Vollette decided to go to college — after years spent adrift after dropping out of high school — it was too late to take advantage of an exemption from tuition and fees at a public college or university in Texas.
Since 1993, Texas has offered tuition waivers for certain students at public institutions of higher education who were formerly in the foster care system. Currently, students must take at least one college course by the age of 25 to lock in the benefits. But by the time Vollette, now 30, earned his GED and enrolled at Austin Community College, he was 27.
“I wish someone had told me just to sign up for one community college class earlier,” he said. “I could have used just a little bit of guidance.”
State policy makers, looking to reduce the number of young adults who fall through the cracks between high school and higher education, have paid more attention to improving awareness of the benefits and resources provided for those who have gone through the foster care system. But relatively few students take advantage of opportunities like the tuition waiver. A new effort by legislators aims to examine whether a new approach is needed.
According to an analysis from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services, more than 49,000 former foster youths are eligible for the waiver — a total that an agency spokesman described as “a very rough estimate.”
Data from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board showed that fewer than 3,700 students took advantage of a tuition waiver in 2013, an increase from 2009, when fewer than 2,300 former foster youths used the waiver.
This year, House Speaker Joe Straus, R-San Antonio, asked the House Human Services and Higher Education Committees ahead of the next legislative session to jointly “consider new strategies to support these youth and make recommendations to enroll and retain more foster youth in higher education.”
State Rep. Richard Peña Raymond, D-Laredo, the chairman of the Human Services Committee, said his panel was working with the Higher Education Committee to coordinate a joint hearing in the coming weeks.
Advocates and experts said the lawmakers would probably find most of the answers to their questions earlier in the education pipeline.
“Low participation in this program is mostly a reflection of the state’s struggling foster care program,” said Ashley Harris, the child welfare policy associate for Texans Care for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “More kids would participate if we screened and trained foster families so more were truly looking out for their foster children and ensuring their social and emotional well-being.”
Harris, a former Texas Child Protective Services caseworker, also said workers at the agency could better encourage and guide youths in the foster system if they were not so burdened by heavy caseloads.
“It takes more than just financial support to navigate college successfully,” she added. “Like any young adult, those transitioning out of foster care need a consistent network of caring adults that will provide guidance, encouragement and continued support for a lifetime.”
The need for change is not lost on government officials. The speaker’s request to lawmakers comes on the heels of increased activity and attention among relevant state agencies — as well as recent legislative action, including a 2011 mandate to have a foster care liaison in every school district.
During the 2013 legislative session, a bill filed by state Sen. Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo, and sponsored in the House by state Rep. Dawnna Dukes, D-Austin, to bolster financial literacy education for foster youths also passed. Dukes said she intended to continue pushing in next year’s session for increased services to enable self-sufficiency among former foster students.
At the state agencies, discussions about educational outcomes for foster youths began ramping up in 2010, when several agency representatives participated in a committee established by the Supreme Court of Texas’ Children’s Commission. A resulting report, released in 2012, proposed multiple strategies for improving college preparedness, retention and completion among foster youths, including lightening caseworkers’ loads — which, it was noted, would incur “a sizable fiscal note.”
But most of the focus has been on students of high school age and younger. For many students in foster care, getting to the end of high school — let alone considering continuing into higher education — is a significant challenge.
According to Texas Education Agency data from the 2010-11 school year, which is the most recently available, 41 percent of foster care students in the state graduated from high school, compared with 71 percent of students who were not in foster care. The students in foster care who did graduate high school are more likely than their peers to have only completed the state’s minimum credit plan for high school, putting them at higher risk of requiring remediation in college.
Currently, most foster youths are around 16 years old when they begin receiving information about resources available for higher education. Some experts said this does not give those youths enough time to process the information and prepare themselves before they are out of the system and on their own.
“These are teenagers, many of which have been living in difficult environments, and a lot of them have a distinct distrust or dislike of anything institutional,” said Clint Rodenfels, the president of Education Reach for Texans, a nonprofit group focused on promoting post-secondary success for former foster students. “Their mind-set is on getting out. It’s hard to have them retain some of this information that’s going to be really helpful when they are thinking they just want to get away and be on their own.”
This month, Rodenfels’ organization, as part of its annual conference at Austin Community College, held its first daylong gathering of former foster youth who are currently enrolled in colleges and universities. Vollette was among them.
While he had to pay his way, Vollette earned an associate degree from Austin Community College and is now enrolled at Texas State University. He hopes to earn a doctoral degree in psychology or social work and work with and advocate for children in foster care.
“Education is key,” he said. “It is the key for understanding yourself, for improving your future, and for rising out of the socioeconomic status of poverty. Poverty is the key to recidivism, the key to drugs, to pain and hatred and not understanding.”
“I chose to rise above it,” he said.
Disclosure: Texas State University System is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.