Even with tuition waived, foster youth travel a tough road

SandovalLunn
Madison Sandoval-Lunn speaks at the Nevada System of Higher Education Board of Regents meeting Sept. 6 urging them to vote in favor of tuition waivers for foster youth. Photo: Michael Lyle

Even with scholarships and loans, Madison Sandoval-Lunn could barely afford college and her living expenses. As a foster youth with no support system, she worked multiple jobs and struggled with periods of homelessness during her time at UNLV. 

“Kids who grew up in the foster care system have a lot of things going against them,” she says.

After five years, Sandoval-Lunn earned her bachelor’s degree in public administration. The odds were never in her favor.

“One in five (foster youth) will become homeless,” Denise Tanata told the Board of Regents for the Nevada System of Higher Education during a Sept. 6 meeting. “Seventy-one percent of foster youth females will become pregnant before they’re 21. Fifty-percent will be unemployed by 24,” Tanata said, citing the National Youth In Transition database.

Less than 3 percent will obtain higher education.

The explanations vary, but often involve a lack of both financial and emotional support, Sandoval-Lunn says.

“A kid once told me she decided to travel instead of going to college because she didn’t want to go into debt,” says Myesha Wilson, the executive director of the child welfare nonprofit Olive Crest. 

The Nevada System of Higher Education voted unanimously Sept. 6 to remove one barrier foster youth face if they arrive on a college campus. Starting in January, tuition and certain fees will be waived for youth who make it to one of NSHE’s colleges or universities.

There are about 47 former foster students who have been identified as eligible for the waivers, which are estimated to cost about $115,000 per year, a cost expected to be absorbed by each institution. Nevada is the 29th state to offer some sort of tuition assistance program. 

Nevada System of Higher Education Chancellor Thom Reilly says the regents will revisit the waiver program in a year to see if adjustments need to be made.

The room erupted in applause and a few audience members wiped away tears as the motion passed. Though it was a victory for child welfare advocates and foster youth, it was one of many steps that needs to be taken.

“There is still a missing piece,” says Regent Allison Stephens, who voted in favor of the proposal. “We as a board have talked about shifting our focus from increasing enrollment within the system to increasing the number of student who complete. We have to bring wrap-around services.”

Assistance, and barriers 

Sandoval-Lunn is currently working on her master’s in social work at UNLV and is a child welfare consultant. Despite her progress, getting there wasn’t easy.

Growing up in California, she cycled through seven foster homes since she was 10 years old. When she was 17, she was finally adopted in Nevada after her last foster family moved here.

Weeks before turning 18, she had a falling out with her new family. She found herself on her own again as she prepared to face the world as an adult.

Older foster youth, she says, sometimes have an impossible decision to make: age out of the foster care system and get state-mandated resources or get adopted, which means gaining a family but foregoing further state assistance.

“I thought I was making the best decision choosing permanency,” Sandoval-Lunn says.

According to the Division of Child and Family Services, 188 youth aged out of foster care in Nevada in 2017. If youth age out of the system, meaning they are never adopted by the time they reach 18, there are two options they can take advantage of until they are 21. 

Every foster youth is eligible to receive a $780 through the state. In the 2011 legislative session, AB350 passed and authorized a monthly stipend paid directly to the client, but youth must volunteer to remain under court jurisdiction while receiving the money.

Clark County Social Service also operates the state Funds to Assist Former Foster Youth program, known as Step Up.

Youth are eligible for a one-time $1,000 educational stipend if they complete high school, a self-sufficiency stipend up to $1,000 — they must outline how they plan to spend that money and can receive it in increments — up to $1,000 for move-in fees and deposits, and up to $773 per month in rental assistance. Youth either have to be in school or working 20 hours per week in order to obtain rental assistance.

Sandoval-Lunn says having some financial assistance doesn’t mean youth are prepared to age out. Nevada has independent living programs to prepare for the transition.

At 14, foster youth can start accessing independent living to learn about money management and daily living skills and get information about substance abuse, college and obtaining medical coverage. Instead of waiting until they are 14, Sandoval-Lunn recommends start addressing independent skills once a youth enters the foster care system.

“If you think about it, in a normal-like family setting you start teaching your kids independent living skills from the moment they’re able to do for themselves.”

She adds most of the youth in foster care are in survivor mode. “Learning something like washing your own laundry and separating your whites or doing your own dishes is not as imperative as not knowing if a foster parent is going to dump you.”

The state-mandated financial assistance isn’t enough to help foster youth wanting to pursue higher education. However, there are scholarships available.

Karla Delgado, the social services chief for the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Child and Family Services, says the first one is federal educational training vouchers, which provides $5,000 per year.

If youth make it to 16 without exiting the foster care system, they can qualify for the voucher and can take advantage of it until they turn 26. “If they decide to start late in the game and want to start at 26, they can,” she says.

The Otto Huth scholarship is another form of assistance, but comes after every other funding sources has been used. Also at $5,000 per year, it can pay for tuition, campus meal plans, books or on and off-campus housing. Eligible youth have to be under 21. 

Sandoval-Lunn was finally able to find housing through the dorms, but there was a catch: The dorms close for several weeks between fall and spring semester, and during which time she said she “would just couch surf.”

She adds this is another common obstacle for foster youth. Without a support system, if they find a way to pay for the dorms, that doesn’t guarantee year-round housing.

UNLV’s HOPE Scholars Program, which is a partnership between the university, Clark County School District and the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth, helps at-risk youth secure year-round housing. The program started in 2016 with six students.

Getting into college can be difficult for former foster youth with little or no support network. Precarious financial conditions can make staying in school just as hard.

“We know as little as $500 can derail a college student,” Tim Burch, the service administrator with Clark County told the regents.

During public comment, a letter was read from one foster youth fighting to finish her master’s degree in social work. Identified as Jessie, the now 24-year-old former foster youth from Washoe County hasn’t had support since she was teenager and aged out of the system.

“I got pregnant at 19 and had my son at 20,” she wrote. “I wanted to give my son a better life than what I had.”

College, she says, was that way.

She had assistance from the state monthly stipend, but also had to work a full-time job on top of her classes, mandatory unpaid internships and motherhood — she adds she has been on a waiting list for child care subsidies four years.

She tried to apply for the Otto Huth Scholarship, but missed the age cut off. Over the last several years, Jessie says she’s racked up more than $60,000 in debt.

“I’ve often had to decide between paying bills and going to school,” she says. “I’ve almost dropped out a few times.”

The NSHE tuition and fees waivers don’t require that youth age out of the system. As long as they make it to 14 while in the system, they qualify.

“This removes the stress of trying to figure out how to pay for school,” Sandoval-Lunn says. “You can focus on education and not how you might get dropped from classes for not paying tuition.”

Bigger than tuition

The role of tuition assistance is part of a bigger issue in Nevada. According to the Children’s Advocacy Alliance, the state has a long way to go when it comes to the advocating for the well-being of children in general.

The organization looks at factors such as safety, education, health and overall economic well-being. “Nevada consistently gets Ds and Fs in every category,” Tanata says.

The organization is working on several legislative priorities for the 2019 session including expanding independent living stipends for former foster youth. During the NSHE meeting, Tanata said the tuition waiver is a step forward toward helping Nevada’s lack of investing in its children.

“We know that access to education is a path to economic stability and success for children and youth,” she adds.

While voting to move ahead on the tuition waiver, Regent Stephens said state lawmakers need to fund supportive services to help at-risk students succeed. “The funding for the wrap-around services that we would need to have in place for students to actually be able to be successful is definitely something that I’d like to see coming from our legislative colleagues,” she says.

Wilson, the executive director at Olive Crest, agrees. She says about 60 percent Olive Crest foster youth went on to pursue higher education, which Wilson attributes to supportive services. “They need a mentor they can call at 2 a.m. when they are having anxiety about a test,” Wilson says.

In addition to helping them succeed, Wilson says service providers need to find ways to engage foster youth earlier — well before high school — to not only keep them on the right track for higher education but to ensure they know about all the resources available to them.

“We know some kids will definitely benefit from (the tuition waiver),” Wilson says. “Now we have to make sure the maximum number of kids benefit from this.”

Michael Lyle
Michael Lyle (MJ to some) has been a journalist in Las Vegas for eight years.  He started his career at View Neighborhood News, the community edition of the Las Vegas Review-Journal. During his seven years with the R-J, he won several first place awards from the Nevada Press Association and was named its 2011 Journalist of Merit. He left the paper in 2017 and spent a year as a freelance journalist accumulating bylines anywhere from The Washington Post to Desert Companion. While he covers a range of topics from homelessness to the criminal justice system, he gravitates toward stories about race relations and LGBTQ issues. Born and mostly raised in Las Vegas, Lyle graduated from UNLV with a degree in Journalism and Media Studies. He is currently working on his master's in Communications through an online program at Syracuse University. In his spare time, Lyle cooks through Ina Garten recipes in hopes of one day becoming the successor to the Barefoot Contessa throne. When he isn’t cooking (or eating), he also enjoys reading, running and re-watching episodes of “Parks and Recreation.” He is also in the process of learning kickboxing.

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