Higher Education for Washington's Collective Children
Written by: Erin Leach-Kemon
Now in his third year at the University of Washington, James Harmon spent all of his adolescence in foster care, starting at 10 until he aged out of the system at 18. Born in California, he lived there with his mother until he was eight-years-old, when the state then sent him to his father here in Washington. “My dad had a lot of issues taking care of a kid who was previously abused by his mother,” Harmon said. “And, his discipline methods were a little too harsh.” At 10, he was removed from his father and placed into foster care.
Harmon moved through 22 different foster homes until the age of 16 when his then foster parents gained guardianship. He still calls them his parents today.
Even before entering the foster system, Harmon bounced from school to school, moving around with his mother. By his estimation, he attended at least five elementary and three different middle schools. He never had the opportunity for accelerated placement testing in elementary school, but his teachers always impressed upon him that he was head-and-shoulders above his classmates. It wasn’t until middle school that he had the chance to enroll in advanced classes.
He has always known that school was his ticket out. “As much as my [previous] foster parents and I never got along, I was always scholastically more apt than my foster siblings, so my foster parents always drilled it into my head that I had to go to college, he said. “One thing that’s always been consistent for me is knowing that I need to go to college.”
Harmon has done just that. Currently, he is working toward a triple major in economics, political science and Arabic, and is on the four-year plan. Recently, he teamed up with the UW Champions Program—a campus support service for youth and alumni of foster care—to help other students succeed in college, just like him.
With bleak national statistics, such as only two to three percent of foster youth ever graduating from a four-year institution, the state of Washington is working to improve this outcome on a state-level. In a major push to create more opportunities for alumni of foster care to attend college, the state has continuously worked to increase financial aid, on-campus support programs, pre-college planning services and to identify current and prospective college students formerly in foster care.
The 2007 legislative program, Passport to College Promise Scholarship, which celebrated its first anniversary in July 2009, provide scholarships and college prep assistance for alumni of foster care, as well as incentive grants for colleges to design programs of support on their campuses. In this first year of assisting Passport students, the state's Higher Education Coordinating Board (HECB) reports that 157 foster youth received scholarship assistance valued at approximately $540,000.
So far, 48 colleges have accepted these incentive grants offered by the Passport program. Alexia Everett, Senior Officer of Foster Care Education and Policy at the College Success Foundation, describes the application for this funding as four-tiered. The institution must agree to a dedicated support staff, institutional commitment, review of financial aid packages and to partner with the community, she said.
Both Seattle University and UW are participants in the Passport program and have extensive offerings for alumni of foster care on their campuses. Four years ago SU launched their Fostering Scholars Program, which was originally set up as a pipeline for students through the Coaching-to-College program at Treehouse—a Seattle-based supportive organization that offers extra services that the state can’t provide for foster youth. Since then, the school has broadened eligibility and outreach to be available for former foster youth statewide.
Over the years, the program’s annual applicant pool has climbed from seven applicants to an average of 15-20, says Director Colleen Montoya Barbano. They’re usually able to admit somewhere between six and nine undergraduates each year. “It’s still not large,” Montoya Barbano says. “We continue to struggle in raising awareness about the program.”
In four years, 23 students have received scholarships through SU’s program. Out of that group, six have graduated (two of which are either in or starting graduate school) and four are expected to graduate this year. Eleven students are still currently enrolled and only two students have dropped out since the program’s start.
Funds are privately raised by Seattle donors, as well as through grants. Each student receives full tuition, year-round meal plans, student health insurance and an emergency fund, a dedicated on-campus staff member and perhaps most importantly, year-round housing. “If they don’t have secure, stable housing, how do they focus on getting their degree?” Montoya Barbano says. “Housing is such a loaded issue for many of these students. It’s something that I don’t think we even have a clue what that means for these students to have a home for the duration of their time here.”
At UW, they just launched their Champions Program at the beginning of April. Their goal is to find ways to bring in former youth in care to the university. With a 15-member Board, they hope to serve as a support staff for alumni of foster care, helping them troubleshoot in various aspects of college life, like housing, financial aid, academic advising and scholarship programs. They’ve brought in community members from the YMCA, Treehouse, Casey Family, as well as faculty members.
Jennifer Schoen, Student Outreach and Pre-College Programs Manager at UW, is heading the effort and says that out of the 34 students on campus who have identified themselves as former foster youth, she has already met with about 20 of them. “We’re not reinventing the wheel,” she says. “We’re just bringing everyone together to prevent where we’ve lost foster youth because they’ve fallen through the cracks.”
Harmon serves as a student Board member of the program. He stresses that the goal of the Champions Program is to achieve equality for alumni of foster care. “No matter what end of the political spectrum you’re on, there’s no equality for youth coming out of care,” he says. “The stats are grim already for youth in care coming out of care, and there’s no reason it should be like that.”
Dr. Mark Courtney, Director of Research and Development at Partners for Our Children (POC) at the UW School of Social Work, and his colleagues at POC and Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago have tracked the progress of over 600 former foster youth in Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin for the last eight years as they aged out of care.
Courtney suggests one of the most crucial steps that still needs to be taken in Washington state is providing continuity from adolescence to adulthood by extending the age at which youth in care age out from 18 to 21. “Parents don’t do that with their young, adult children,” Courtney says. He contends that the state needs to maintain a continuation of this parenting role in helping youth obtain employment, as well as with health and behavioral needs.
With the passage of the 2008 Fostering Connections to Success Act, states are now offered matched federal funds, if they choose to extend foster care services to 21. Only a few states have jumped on the bandwagon so far, including Illinois, New York and Vermont, as well as the District of Columbia. The state of Washington, however, has not yet drafted legislation to extend foster care to age 21.
“Extending care past 18 is what other states have done, and we haven’t done that,” says Courtney. It just makes sense from a policy point of view, he says. “It’s cost beneficial for states to extend to age 21.”
Harmon also acknowledges the cost effectiveness of the state providing extended funding for foster youth. In addition to his work with the Champions Program, he has taken on his own side project, analyzing the state’s budget, and evaluating the allocation of resources for former youth in care and benefits that are afforded to the state.
Past his expected graduation in 2011, Harmon plans to go into international security advising, particularly in the Middle East.
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