‘I’m devastated’: Hundreds of former fosters may lose state financial aid for college

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Student Nia Dyer works on a project at a study space inside Minnesota State University Moorhead on Thursday.
Amy Felegy | MPR News

Updated: 3:20 p.m.

Nia Dyer’s dream of graduating college next year is on the line.

She’s one of about 645 students receiving state aid to pay for college through the Fostering Independence Grant program — the first of its kind in the nation to cover not only tuition but full cost of attendance of college for Minnesotans who have been in foster care.

But 40 percent of recipients in the program, often called FIG, are in danger of losing their funding next year because of a $5 million budget shortfall. For students like Dyer, who started receiving FIG last fall, that means her dream of graduating and starting a career in advocacy might have to be put on hold.

“I’m devastated. I’m one year away from graduating college and my educational journey is something that I’ve struggled with my entire life. So being that close to achieving a dream of mine and then hearing that I might not be able to afford to go back, it was a hard hit,” said Dyer, a junior at Minnesota State University Moorhead.

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Nia Dyer walks out of the library in the communications building at Minnesota State University Moorhead on Thursday.
Amy Felegy | MPR News

Advocates working to fill $5 million hole in FIG funding, consider adding waitlist

The $5 million budget gap is rooted in an unexpected demand for FIG. After the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill in 2021 to fund the creation of the program, it began supporting students in the 2022-2023 academic year. 

Adam Johnson is state financial aid program administrator for FIG at Minnesota’s Office of Higher Education and said they had originally projected a 4 percent increase in FIG recipients for the 2023-2024 academic year.

Instead, the number of incoming students shot up to 34 percent, according to Johnson. About 664 students are expected to be in the program by the end of this semester.

“So the 492 students that received it in 22 to 23, they were just already attending college and FIG was probably not a reason as to why they were going to school. But thanks to kind of promotion of the program, awareness, getting the information out there, that’s when we all sudden saw all these students coming this year after they became aware of the programs,” said Johnson.

To be eligible for FIG, a foster must have completed high school, be 26 or younger 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.

He said the big jump means students were motivated to go to school, whether it be a high school senior deciding to go to college or students who started school and maybe didn’t do so well, but were now coming back because the program existed.

Johnson said it’s a “rough situation,” because only 60 percent of students in FIG are anticipated to be covered next year.

As a potential solution, in addition to asking for more money, the Office of Higher Education has asked the Minnesota Legislature to add language to the law to create a waitlist. 

It’s not ideal, but Johnson said there would be consequences if a waitlist isn’t developed.

“If we don’t waitlist, essentially we would just start awarding students in fall. And we would probably be able to award almost everyone in fall but then we wouldn’t be able to award no one in spring semester,” he said.

The waitlist has raised opposition from many fosters who are in the program. Questions have been raised about how fosters would be prioritized when they’re coming with different levels of education, especially if there’s competition between students who are just starting college because of FIG and students who are graduating in the upcoming year.

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 | 2022

Rallying support in the Legislature

Foster Advocates, a St. Paul-based nonprofit that helped pass legislation creating FIG, has been rallying community partners and legislators to help find solutions for the funding gap.

Ariana Guerra, the nonprofit’s director of systems change, said they’ve had FIG recipients testify before House and Senate committees in the past week and are hoping to come up with a way to make up the money before session ends.

“As far as our position, we’re not going to quit. And so we talked to every single person or every committee or every legislator about what programs can we raid, where can we tap into, how can we collectively can come together for fosters and do the right thing so that we don’t have to break another promise,” said Guerra.

A woman speaks into a microphone.
State Rep. Marion Rarick (left) pleads for more funding for the Fostering Independence Grants in a House Higher Education Finance and Policy committee meeting on Thursday in the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul.
Nicole Ki | MPR News

On Thursday, Office of Higher Education commissioner Dennis Olson made the case to legislators during a House Higher Education Finance and Policy committee meeting. His office has worked to keep the program running, having transferred money to it twice already. 

“When we first did projections on this grant, we never, of course, imagined the level of interest we’re seeing now. It’s certainly an amazing outcome of the creation of the program, which is only a year old,” he said. “That was shocking to us.”

State Rep. Marion Rarick, R-Maple Lake, spoke in support. 

“I don’t know if we will have any budget whatsoever … but if there’s any place that we could put some money, a $5 million ask in that area seems to be very prudent. We’ve made a promise to these foster care kids. They don’t have a lot of options. They’re literally wards of the state, and so I really hope that we can find some way to make them whole.” 

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. Many states provide tuition waivers or scholarships to students who have experienced foster care, but advocates have said FIG is the most comprehensive and easiest to access in the country.

That means that even the North Star Promise Program, which begins this fall semester and covers tuition and fees for Minnesota residents whose family adjusted gross income is below $80,000, will not cover as much as FIG does. 

Waitlist reaffirms idea that fosters need to be ‘lucky’ to succeed

Many fosters like Dyer aren’t on board with the idea of a waitlist. She said it reaffirms the idea that fosters need to be lucky in order to achieve anything.

“If we want to have a family that loved us, we needed to be lucky. When we were in care, if you want to avoid neglect or abuse, we had to be lucky. So the idea that if we want to go to college, we have be one of the lucky percentage of fosters who made it to the waitlist — it’s really unfortunate that the only time that fosters ever get to come out on top with any part of their dream is they get lucky,” said Dyer.

Dyer, who suffers from a chronic pain disorder, relies on FIG for safe housing and paying bills outside of college that aren’t covered by federal disability aid. Now she’s forced to make a decision on whether she has to move to a cheaper, less-safe neighborhood to finish college or work part-time to try to meet her own needs.

She’s also nearing the cut-off age for receiving FIG.

“College is my hope for my future and I don’t know what I’m going to do if I can't finish because I’ll be 25 next year and if I don't make it onto that waitlist and I don’t make it onto the next one, I will be 26 and I will not qualify for FIG anymore,” said Dyer.

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Student Nia Dyer shops for notebooks at Minnesota State University Moorhead bookstore on Thursday.
Amy Felegy | MPR News

According to a legislative report, about 52 percent of FIG recipients from last year represented racial groups that are historically underrepresented communities in higher education. The three largest groups were Black/African American, two or more races and Hispanic/Latino.

The data also shows an increase in the number of FIG students choosing four-year institutions over two-year institutions this year compared with students in the program's first year, a fact Johnson said was promising.

Taking FIG away could damage many fosters’ livelihood, according to Ziigwan Frazer. She’s a policy and advocacy manager at Foster Advocates and past FIG recipient who has been testifying at the Capitol to get more funding for the program.

“I know on the ground what this looks like: This looks like people becoming homeless. This looks like people losing their hope, this looks like people no longer able to provide themselves with food or their basic necessities. That is the reality. This isn’t just losing access to going to school, this is losing access to livelihood,” said Frazer.

A woman speaks to a committee while sitting at a microphone.
Ziigwan Frazer testifies in support of increased funding for the Fostering Independence Grants in a House Higher Education Finance and Policy committee meeting on Thursday in the Minnesota Capitol in St. Paul.
Nicole Ki | MPR News