Opinion: Ga. lawmakers should pass grants to help foster kids pay for college or tech school

Georgia’s State Capitol.
Georgia’s State Capitol.

Kelvin Craig, a 23-year-old former foster child, is not much different than the approximately 700 young adults who age out of Georgia’s foster care system each year.

At age 18 he moved out his fourth foster home into an independent transition program. Two years later, he decided to pursue a career in computer programming and enrolled at Athens Technical College.

After six weeks, however, he dropped out because he couldn’t get a ride to school. And now he is stuck with a $636 Pell Grant to pay off with no degree and no job. He previously held a series of low-paying hourly jobs in manufacturing, landscaping and working with a land surveying company.

For Kelvin – currently living with a friend in Winder– the prospect of a college education or returning to technical school is only a dream. But thanks to legislation now before the Georgia Senate, that dream could actually be in reach.

Senate Bill 107 sponsored by state Senators Brian Strickland of McDonough, Kay Kirkpatrick of Marietta and Mike Dugan of Carrollton would give postsecondary education grants to waive tuition, fees and mandatory room and board fees for all qualifying foster kids and adopted children at University System of Georgia colleges and universities and Technical College System of Georgia schools.

Currently these students can apply for HOPE scholarships or grants that partially cover costs to technical colleges or universities. But under the proposed legislation, the state would waive any remaining tuition and related fees such as housing for eligible foster care students after all federal and non-federal aid has been applied to a student’s account.

This would be a tremendous help for foster kids who - through no fault of their own – are taken into state custody either as young children or older teens because their parents abused or neglected them. When they get older, they usually have no family members they can rely on because often their parents are in jail, emotionally unreliable, have addiction issues or other problems making it challenging for them to find the support they need to transition into adulthood.

Kids who age out of foster care are basically orphans. While traditional parents often pay for their young adult child’s cellphone, clothes, transportation and even college costs, foster kids who age out of care are literally on their own for everything, including help with pursuing a secondary education. Some haven’t even finished their high school education on time and need assistance earning a diploma or getting a GED so they can pursue higher education.

Attending college or technical school that might require paying for a dorm, a meal plan or an apartment near campus is a hurdle too high for them when they need to find immediate work to survive.

“I want to go back to school really badly,” Kelvin said. “This would change my life if I could go to college – Athens Tech for two years then transfer to a university.”

That’s why this Georgia Senate plan to offer tuition grants to cover these expenses for young adults like Kelvin would go a long way to save the state millions of dollars in unemployment benefits, food stamps and other welfare programs as many who qualify once were in foster care.

For the 700 young men and women ages 18 to 21 who age out of the state’s foster care system each year, the prospects of life without an education are not good:

  • 97 percent of youth who age-out of the foster system find themselves in chronic poverty or worse.
  • 87 percent of boys who age out of the system will spend time in jail.
  • 71 percent of girls who age out of foster care will wind up pregnant in the first year – thus many repeat the cycle of having children taken into foster care.

The opportunity to attend Gwinnett Technical College, for example, and learn a good-paying trade such as plumbing, heating and air conditioning, veterinary tech or medical assistant is a ticket to a better life. Right now, far too many are unemployed or working in fast-food restaurants or coffee shops – earning barely enough to feed themselves let alone afford an apartment.

Georgia has provided HOPE scholarships for almost 30 years for Georgia students to attend state colleges and universities. This proposed education grant for foster kids to attend college and technical school would give the least fortunate in our society real hope and provide an opportunity for hundreds of kids to avoid a lifetime of hardship and misery.

Pam Parish is the founder and CEO of Connections Homes, a North Georgia agency that links older foster kids aging out of the foster care system in 27 counties with volunteers eager to mentor them to make better choices in their lives.