College is now free for young Minnesotans who were in foster care as teens

A young man stands in an administrative building
Fostering Independence Higher Education Grant recipient Travis Matthews poses for a photo in West Hall at Hamline University in St. Paul on Feb. 17.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

Travis Matthews’ first taste of independence came one June night on the Stone Arch Bridge, shortly after he turned 18.

After being removed from his parents’ care at 13 years old, Matthews spent his teen years in a Grand Rapids group home where he had limited freedoms and said he had to ask permission to enter any room. He dreamed about studying law at Hamline University, which the kind woman who ran his group home had attended.

After he turned 18, he moved to an apartment in the Dinkytown neighborhood of Minneapolis to start school.

The bridge was the first place he walked to by himself, without having to answer to a group home supervisor or a social worker. 

The sky was clear. He could see one person on the bridge. The surrounding buildings obstructed a good view of the stars, a sight he would have to start getting used to. Excitement and nervousness seeped in.

He was thrilled to pursue his dream, but worried about what it would cost. Four years of undergrad at Hamline came with a $40,000 price tag.

“Even with a 90 percent scholarship, I still had to pay $10,000 out of pocket,” Matthews said. “That wasn’t including if they up tuition, or cost of inflation. I was just planning on pulling loans every year for that because I didn’t have the money. Other people my age can go to mom and dad and tell them they need help with money. I don’t have that same benefit. My safety net is my savings account.”

Minnesota is now helping him create a safety net with a new program called Fostering Independence Grants. It’s the first of its kind in the nation to use state funds to pay for full cost of attendance at college for people who have been in foster care, according to Foster Advocates.

The nonprofit is led by former fosters who helped push legislation for FIG in 2021.

Matthews, now 20, said he is the first in his family to go to college. He’s in his junior year at Hamline, where he’s double majoring in legal studies and social justice.

Since FIG began last fall semester, he and 457 other college students have received state funding to help cover college tuition and living expenses. In total, the Minnesota Office of Higher Education reports more than $2 million has been given out to help fosters pursue a post-secondary education.

The governor signs a bill
Gov. Tim Walz signs HF 3845 on June 13, 2022. The bill established an ombudsperson for foster youth.
Courtesy of Foster Advocates

‘Grants are giving fosters an opportunity to dream’

The grants are meant to cover “last dollar money,” or the costs left over after all resources from federal grants and third-party scholarships are exhausted.

Minnesota is one of over 30 states that provide tuition waivers or scholarships to students who have experienced foster care, but advocates say FIG is the most comprehensive and easiest to access in the country.

FIG is giving fosters an opportunity to dream, said Hoang Murphy, founder of Foster Advocates. The nonprofit helped pass Minnesota’s Fostering Higher Education Act in 2021, pledging about $3.8 million per year to help offset cost of attendance for fosters pursuing college and to address barriers in accessing financial aid.

“We're often told that fosters are tough, or that they're resilient,” said Murphy, who spent time in Minnesota’s foster-care system as a kid. “What people don't see, the negative side of that is then we're being told that we have to have grit. But I don't want young people to have to be tougher than they already are. And now what presents is an opportunity, that the only limit to their ability to pursue post-secondary is how much they can envision for their own future.”

To be eligible for FIG, a foster must have completed high school, be under the age of 27 and have been in the Minnesota foster-care system at any point after turning 13. Fosters don’t need to go through extra hoops to get FIG — it’s as easy as checking a box on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, or FAFSA.

“One of the best things about the Fostering Higher Education Act was that it braided together the financial programs that were supposed to be supporting fosters into a single one,” said Murphy. “Fosters do not need to apply in any extra way to qualify for FIG. All you have to do is apply for the FAFSA like everyone else to get financial aid, and then apply to your college.”

FIG has been made possible in part by a new data-sharing agreement between Minnesota Office of Higher Education and Minnesota Department of Human Services that flags fosters for FIG once they apply to FAFSA. One of its funding resources is Minnesota’s education and training voucher program, which provides up to $5,000 of financial aid per school year to a foster for tuition-related expenses.

Seven people pose together
Foster Advocates staff pose on Feb. 8, at the Capitol in St. Paul.
Courtesy Joseph Heili

Program helps a community that often has lower educational outcomes

In 2021, about 12,400 children and young adults experienced out-of-home care, according to a Minnesota Department of Human Services report. The top three reasons for removal from home were caretaker drug abuse, allegations of neglect and child mental health needs.

Only 37 percent of Minnesota students in foster care graduated high school in four years, compared to the overall graduation rate of 83 percent, according to the most recent Minnesota Department of Education data, which is for class of 2021. 

Their graduation rates are lower than any other demographic DOE tracks, including homeless students, said Hannah Planalp, director of support programs at Foster Advocates.

The most recent 7-year graduation rate for high school students in foster care is better at around 54 percent, but still far below the overall 7-year graduation rate of 89 percent.

Nationally, around 3 to 4 percent of fosters make it through a 4-year college, according to the National Foster Youth Institute. Between 2 and 6 percent go through 2-year colleges.

“This population is at high risk of homelessness, higher rates of pregnancy before turning 21, incarceration and lower educational outcomes,” read a 2023-2024 budget recommendation report from DHS.

Children of color, specifically American Indian and Black children, were disproportionately represented in Minnesota’s foster care system in 2021.

“American Indian children were approximately 16 times more likely than their white counterparts to experience out-of-home care; those of two or more races were 7 times more likely; and Black children were approximately twice as likely,” the report read. 

The goal of FIG is that fosters see college as a possibility and can succeed without having to worry about the financial aspects, said Adam Johnson, state financial aid program administrator for FIG at OHE.

“That’s kind of the big part for me,” said Johnson. “It’s a whole demographic of students that just have not been able to go to college. The ones that break through it’s like a miracle almost. It’s the fact that we can make more of these students, by identifying them through this way, successful and in careers they want to be in.”

Out of 389 students in the 2022 fall semester who received FIG, about 64 percent went to a two-year Minnesota State college, like Minneapolis Technical and Community College. Around 17 percent went to a four-year college, and the remaining 18 percent went to either the University of Minnesota, nonprofit and for-profit colleges, according to OHE data.

A group poses on the stairs in the state capitol
Foster Advocates staff and fosters pose at the state Capitol in St. Paul on May 6.
Photo by Senate Media Services

‘It’s the least they owe fosters’

For Matthews, FIG means he doesn’t have to work long hours or spend as much time figuring out finances.

“That leaves me more capacity to work on my internships, classes and homework,” said Matthews. “Because it really is hard doing both. If you are doing more work in surviving than you are in education, there’s something wrong. And I think that’s the system and importance of FIG.”

It doesn’t take away the burden of being financially independent, but FIG helps Matthews manage school and keep up with a car loan, insurance and phone bills, college books and food.

Others, like 25-year-old Katelyn Owens, are using FIG to go back to college.

“I was grateful,” Owens said about receiving FIG this spring semester. “But, you know, I feel like it's the least that they owe fosters. You know, children, we go through a lot being in foster care. So to give us an opportunity to get an education, I feel like I'm just blessed to be able to be a part of it and be able to receive it.”

Owens is a single mother of three living in St. Cloud. She said she attended college for a short time after she aged out of foster care in 2015, but wasn’t able to go back because of student loans. With the help of FIG, Owens is continuing her second semester at Anoka Technical College for medical coding and hopes to help run a nursing home or group home after she finishes school.

A bill currently in the legislature would appropriate another $1 million to Foster Advocates for mentoring, leadership development and resources to support fosters in post secondary education. 

“It takes a village to take care of a child, but it also takes a village to fail one,” said Murphy. “What we’re seeing now is a village that’s coming together. We need more than just costs, we need advice, mentorship and coaching.”

Matthews testified alongside another foster in early February for the first hearing on HF 1789 to get additional funding for FIG. He said Foster Advocates has supported him beyond just helping him get FIG money, for example teaching him financial literacy.

“Not having the best knowledge on financial literacy was a huge thing for me and I had to learn really fast,” said Matthews. “I think we need to pass the bill and continue to provide support for fosters because FIG was a great thing but we’re going to have to do more.”

A young man stands in an office
Fostering Independence Higher Education Grant recipient Travis Matthews poses for a photo in front of his work study desk in the Dean of Students office at Hamline University in St. Paul on Feb. 17.
Ben Hovland | MPR News
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