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For students in the foster care system, college can be an elusive goal

Marketplace Contributor May 24, 2017
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Ashley Williams studies for law school finals at her kitchen table in Los Angeles. She graduated from Southwestern Law School in May. Libby Denkmann/Marketplace

For students in the foster care system, college can be an elusive goal

Marketplace Contributor May 24, 2017
Ashley Williams studies for law school finals at her kitchen table in Los Angeles. She graduated from Southwestern Law School in May. Libby Denkmann/Marketplace
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Ashley Williams’ ambition to become a lawyer has a lot to do with her experience as a kid in foster care.

“I want to be a lawyer because when I grew up in the foster care system, I didn’t have many lawyers who could advocate for me,” Williams said. “I figure I want to help other youth.”

Williams said she moved around to 36 foster homes and 26 schools after she entered the system at 10 years old.

“Education was just what kept me going,” she said. “I loved being in school.”

Williams, who told her story as she was studying for her law degree, is an unusual success story. Every year, around 28,000 young people in the United States age out of the foster care system. According to a University of Chicago longitudinal study of foster youth, around 58 percent graduate from high school by the time they’re 19 years old, compared to about 86 percent of the general population. And while the data show an overwhelming number of foster youth want to attend college, most won’t achieve that goal.

Amanda Yard is director of support services at the Los Angeles Youth Network, a nonprofit that provides housing and other support for foster youth. She said bouncing around from placement to placement disrupts a kid’s educational progress. Different schools may not recognize previous work, and often students have to retake courses they’ve already been through.

“That’s a way of retraumatizing a young person that’s just been literally removed from their home, and now they have to struggle with what their education is going to look like,” Yard said. “So we try to break those barriers for them as well.”

Raynetta Smith (left) and Amanda Yard (right) stand on the porch of the administrative offices of Los Angeles Youth Network. The non-profit provides housing and educational support to local foster youth. 

Since many foster youth will age out of the system at 18, Yard said, teenagers are forced to think about survival skills — like where they’re going to live — instead of college applications.

“They’re just kids who’ve had unfortunate circumstances and want to get ahead and be successful in life and be successful adults,” she said. “And they need us to do that, because they don’t have anyone.”

Starting in 2008, the federal government began offering to reimburse states for extending the eligibility age of foster care. About half of U.S. states now allow young people to stay in the system until they’re 21 years old.

And there are a variety of state and federal programs to help foster youth pay for college. Many states have scholarship or grant programs. Some waive tuition at public universities and vocational training fees.

But the numbers show most foster youth aren’t equipped to take advantage of this support. Multiple studies indicate under 10 percent get a bachelor’s degree.

Williams said too often, foster youth aren’t aware that they can ask for help. She wants kids in the system to think about building a team to help them get ahead.

“Take advantage of the money. Take advantage of everything. If something’s not going right, put your social worker to work,” Williams said. “Put the judge, put the lawyers, everybody that’s supposed to be there to protect you — put them to work. Let them do their job.”

Williams is now 27 years old, and plans to continue advocating for foster youth as her career progresses.  She just received her law degree in May. The bar exam is up next.

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