Opinion: Tuition waiver will benefit foster kids

Georgia’s Capitol.

Georgia’s Capitol.

Imagine being 18, on your own, with no parents and no one to guide you about what to do with your future.

While most kids grow up with parents who encourage them to pursue their dreams to become doctors, lawyers, accountants or a host of other professions, I grew up in a dysfunctional home where you couldn’t look that far ahead.

Living with an alcoholic mother eventually led to my placement in the state’s foster care system at the age of 13. While I did spend a few years with a loving foster family, I did not have biological parents who saved their money to send me to college or trade school.

When I enrolled in Lipscomb University to pursue a business degree, I had to take federal loans to attend the small Nashville college.

With no money for room and board, I worked at J.C. Penney from 5:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m., selling shoes. At 11 p.m., I started a second job loading trucks for UPS before getting off work at 3 a.m. But even that was not enough to pay for my living expenses, and I had to quit college and return to Atlanta to get a full-time job.

Richard L. Jackson

Credit: contributed

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Credit: contributed

My story is no different than the more than 700 foster kids who age out of the Georgia foster care system each year and have no career path nor anyone to pay for their secondary education. They are on their own to fend for themselves.

That’s why legislation just adopted by the Georgia General Assembly to provide tuition waivers and room and board to foster kids to attend a technical school or college within the University System of Georgia is an amazing step that could dramatically change the lives of kids who age out of the foster care system.

It may be the most impactful legislation the Georgia Legislature has ever passed to break the cycle of poverty – and keep foster kids off government welfare programs.

Senate Bill 107 by senators Brian Strickland, R-McDonough; Kay Kirkpatrick, R-Marietta, and Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, waives 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. It would also help those who haven’t completed their high school education get a GED.

The vast majority of foster kids age out of the state system and walk into a bleak future if they don’t have technical training or a formal education to set them on a career path. Too many are working low-paying, hourly-wage jobs, or are unemployed, couch-surfing and living with friends or are homeless and on the streets. They then become dependent on programs such as food stamps and Medicaid, thus perpetuating the cycle of poverty.

The statistics are alarming:

  • Seventy percent of trafficking victims report a history of being in foster care.
  • Eighty-seven percent of boys who age out of the system spend time in jail.
  • Seventy-one percent of girls who age out of foster care will wind up pregnant in the first year. In those instances, many repeat the cycle of having children taken into foster care.
  • Ninety-seven percent of youth who age out of the foster care system wind up in chronic poverty or worse.

This legislation gives them the opportunity to learn a skill to be hired in great-paying jobs such as computer technology, welders, plumbers, electricians or even truck drivers if they don’t go to college. That is something too few who aged out of foster care have even considered because of the cost.

Gov. Brian Kemp is expected to sign SB 107 soon. It applies to both foster kids who have aged-out of the foster care system and are out on their own, are in independent living situations, are teens in foster care about to graduate high school or any child who was in foster care and has been adopted.

For the thousands of kids in foster care who need a helping hand in an already-challenging situation, these new tuition waivers are an opportunity no foster child should ever pass up as it can break the cycle of poverty.

As a former foster child, I want to thank Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan for his leadership on behalf of the 11,840 foster children currently in care in this state who someday may use these waivers. And I want to commend our governor who has demonstrated a big heart for these orphans of our time.

Offering a hand to foster kids is not only compassionate but makes good public policy.

Richard L. Jackson is founder and chairman of FaithBridge Foster Care. He is also chairman and CEO of Jackson Healthcare.