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For foster care kids, college degrees are elusive

Teresa Wiltz, on

Published in News & Features

WASHINGTON -- Since she was 2, Alexis Barries has bounced from foster home to group home to finally, a place of her own. She's got dreams of becoming an attorney, and even started college early, at 16.

Eight years and five community colleges later, the Californian is still a freshman, working her way through school at an exceedingly slow pace, punctuated by a frustrating series of stops and starts, from financial aid snafus to housing mix-ups. Without an adult to help her figure things out, she says, the obstacles she encountered took on Kafkaesque proportions.

"I wasn't prepared for college. I didn't have parents or anyone to look up to or help me with my college experience," said Barries, who lives in Stockton, Calif., where she now attends San Joaquin Delta College.

"I completely fell down."

At a time when many parents help their children navigate every twist and turn of their academic lives, former and current foster youth have a particularly difficult path. If they don't have a parental figure to guide them, they're often left on their own to maneuver through the maze of college applications and financial aid paperwork.

Some states are stepping up efforts to give them more guidance and support.


In October, California Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed into law a program providing additional support services for foster youth in community colleges, including assigning a counselor to entering students. This year New York will spend $4.5 million to help foster youth with tuition, books and living expenses, up from $3 million last year.

And in September, four Pennsylvania universities launched a public-private partnership to recruit foster youth who want to go to college and support them with year-round campus housing, food pantries, counseling and school supplies.

"There are all these hurdles that foster youth have to go through," said California state Sen. Jim Beall, a Democrat, who sponsored the California legislation.

"There are no parents, no one to help them. They drop out and do other things."


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