During her summer in Washington, D.C., CCAI Foster Youth Intern (FYI) Maurissa Sorensen brought to light a troubling problem surrounding higher education and foster youth in the United States. In the 2012 Foster Youth Internship Report, Hear Me Now, Maurissa explained how the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form was not designed to help alumni of U.S. foster care identify the federal resources for higher education that were created for them to access. As Maurissa explained in her report, “when I started community college, I was asked to fill out the FAFSA form, which included checking a box stating that I was a foster youth. I now understand that the purpose of this box is to separate out youth who will not be able to comply with the sections of the form that address parental income. I spent more than seven years in community college and filled out the FAFSA form each year. Unfortunately, during this time, no one from the federal government ever used this information that I was a foster youth to bring attention to the U.S. Department of Education that I was a student who may need additional resources and supports.”
A December 2012 CCAI blog post featured Maurissa and how her testimony and contribution to the FYI report (starting on page 19) prompted action by former Senator John Kerry who introduced the Foster Youth Higher Education Opportunities Act that same year after Maurissa interned in his office. The bill directed the Department of Education to ensure foster youth are aware of any and all potential assistance they can attain in pursuing a higher education. The bill was not passed into law, but Senators Feinstein, Inhofe and Landrieu picked up the idea as their former colleague transitioned to his role as Secretary of State.
On January 17, 2014, President Obama signed into law the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014. Senator Landrieu and her staff worked to ensure that Division H, Title III, Section 310 of the bill directs the Secretary of Education to modify the FAFSA form so that it contains an individual box for identifying students who are current or former foster youth, as well as to use that identification as a tool to notify those students of their potential eligibility for federal student aid.
On February 3, fourteen U.S. Senators sent a letter was sent to Secretaries Arne Duncan (DOE) and Kathleen Sebelius (HHS) on behalf of current and former foster youth regarding their educational outcomes. The letter noted that only three percent of foster youth graduate from college, and that in addition to recent changes to raise awareness of resources for foster youth more changes were needed. Specifically, the Senators’ letter asked that “the Department of Education and the Department of Health and Human Services coordinate dissemination efforts to reach foster youth and provide them with information about the resources that have been created to help them succeed.”
In response, Secretary Duncan sent a March 5, 2014 letter detailing plans for specific DOE outreach activities and other next steps to address the problem of insufficient awareness of information and resources for foster youth pursuing higher education. In his letter, Secretary Duncan listed a number of initiatives that were under way and planned to raise awareness about information and resources for foster youth, including Maurissa’s idea from the 2012 Foster Youth Internship Report: The Secretary’s letter announced that DOE will modify the 2015-2016 FASFA form to contain a box that identifies foster youth so that DOE can then notify them of their eligibility for federal higher education assistance specifically created for them.
Upon hearing this news, Maurissa responded:
As a foster youth alumni I have experienced the hardships and hurdles that many of our foster youth face, trying to juggle the balancing act of post-secondary schooling and managing personal finances. Foster youth are supposed to be able to access federal financial aid to offset some of the financial barriers of attending post-secondary education. In 2001 when I began my post-secondary educational journey I was not made aware of this funding, even though I filled out the FAFSA ever year and checked the appropriate box for foster youth. Over the last 13 years, without any of the funds created to assist me as a former foster youth in gaining my higher education, I have earned my Bachelors in Psychology from California State University, Chanel Islands, my Masters in Education from Harvard, and am now on track to earn my Masters in Social Work and Public Policy Administration in May 2016. I am overjoyed and excited to see the Department of Education taking initiative to use the FAFSA form as a tool to help identify and educate future youth about federal assistance programs they qualify for and hope this will spare them some of the additional challenges I faced acquiring higher education.
CCAI thanks Secretary Duncan for his leadership at the Department in addressing this critical information gap and expresses deep gratitude to Senators Dianne Feinstein, James Inhofe, Mary Landrieu, Richard Blumenthal, Tammy Baldwin, Jay Rockefeller, Al Franken, Ron Wyden, Patty Murray, Ben Cardin, Chuck Grassley, Carl Levin, and Tim Kaine for their continued dedication to fighting for better educational opportunities and outcomes for our nation’s current and former foster youth.