Foster youths’ financial climb through college getting even steeper

The last time Lerone Matthis was released from the Division of Juvenile Justice, in April 2008, he feared he had reached bottom.

“I was discouraged by the prospects for a meaningful future,” Matthis recalled.

He didn’t have a place to rest his head, bathe, or change his clothes. He wore the same jeans and a white shirt that was dingy around the neck because it hadn’t been washed for a month. He bought socks from a neighborhood liquor store, relied on relatives and friends for food and shelter, and at times the former foster youth simply went hungry.

However, Matthis had earned a GED in jail. When he got out, he enrolled in City College of San Francisco through an educational support system for the formerly incarcerated. Still, the 29-year-old single father of two young children never believed he would graduate.

Lerone Matthis at his graduation from City College of San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Steve Ngo, City College).
Lerone Matthis at his graduation from City College of San Francisco. (Photo courtesy of Steve Ngo, City College).

“Four years ago, I did not know what it meant to dream, to believe in a future, or to have faith in myself,” Matthis recalled last Saturday, in a commencement speech to hundreds of faculty, administrators, and students at City College, where he graduated with honors.

This fall, Matthis will enter the University of California, Davis, where he plans to major in managerial economics, continue studying for a master’s degree in tax accounting, and eventually become a Certified Public Accountant.

The Richmond resident credits the Guardian Scholars Program for his transformation. The nationally recognized, privately funded program provides college financial assistance and academic guidance to former foster youth at more than 30 campuses across California, including private universities.

Guardian Scholars receive up to $5,000 to pay for costs not covered by financial aid, such as rent, transportation, and childcare. But now Guardian Scholars is finding it difficult to meet the growing needs of former foster youth. Michael McPartlin, coordinator of the Guardians Scholars Program at City College, said he no longer advertises the program because it is filled to capacity. Currently, it serves about 200 of the 900 students who have identified themselves as former foster youth.

Access to higher education, and the employment and economic advantages that go with it, continues to be dismal for former foster care youth. It’s estimated that between 7 and 13 percent of former foster youth enroll in college.

A 2010 report by Casey Family Programs found that only 2 percent of young people from foster care complete their bachelor’s degree, compared to 30 percent of the general population. Common barriers to college include low high school graduation rates, emotional and mental health issues, long-term effects of abuse and neglect, academic learning gaps, and a poor system of transferring school records, according to the Casey Family website. Paying for college is also a major impediment.

In his May budget revise, Gov. Jerry Brown proposed to decrease Cal Grant awards in the 2012-13 academic year by $111.5 million, by lowering the amount students can get while attending public colleges. If approved, this would affect about 30,800 students, according to the governor’s website.

In addition, starting next month, changes to the Federal Pell Grant program will limit the number of years students can receive the aid from nine to six years. This fails to consider that former foster youth, as well as other low-income students, often start in remedial math and English courses due to challenges in their K-12 education, and may need three or four semesters to qualify for college-level courses. For these students, it can take more than six years to complete their undergraduate degree.

Sugyn Paynay, a 22-year-old Guardian Scholar who is completing her Associate of Art degree in child development, had to take four remedial English courses before she could enroll in an English course that was transferable to a four-year university. Even with priority registration available to Guardian Scholars, some of the other classes Paynay needed were full when she went to sign up.

The only way she can pay for her education is by taking out student loans, something she says will be difficult since she plans follow a career path where she may not earn enough to pay back large loans.

“It’s okay to get a loan if you’re becoming a nurse. You’ll eventually make a good [amount] of money, but I’m going into teaching,” she said. “Getting a loan will be a real financial burden while I’m in school, as well as in the future.”

In spite of educators’ enthusiasm to improve access to higher education for foster care youth, government agencies are faced with the realities of persistent budget deficits, said Jill Berrick, co-director of the Center for Child and Youth Policy at the University of California Berkeley.

“Until the economy turns around, very few social programs in California are going to be experiencing anything close to full funding,” she said.

On the Saturday of his graduation from City College, a white, red, and blue ribbon with a medal hung around Matthis’ neck. His graduation cap had the year “2012” airbrushed on it. On the back of his black graduation gown were two large pictures of his children with the words that kept him pushing forward when things became challenging: “Congratulations Daddy.”

“My kids love their daddy. But I worried they would never be proud of me,” Matthis said.

Being part of the Guardian Scholars Program, and other support groups on campus, allowed him to face the emotions he felt as a teen. This year, he spoke at a conference in San Diego about mental health problems in black males as part of his efforts to educate others about young men in the foster care system or correctional facilities. As a Guardian Scholar, he says, he learned to raise his own expectations of what he can accomplish.

“Although former foster youth are dealing with significant challenges,” said Matthis, “they can and will succeed if given the right tools or guidance.”

Rosa Ramirez (@rosamramirez) is a Bay Area reporter who has covered health, immigration, Hispanic affairs and food policy. She recently completed a dual master’s program in journalism and Latin American Studies from UC Berkeley. A longer version of this article appeared in The Chronicle of Social Change.

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