College Students from Foster Care – Why On-Campus Mentoring Makes a Difference
Attending college, particularly a large university like Michigan State University (MSU), is filled with exciting first-time experiences for new college-goers, but also challenges that could be hard to overcome without the support of strong family ties. Image trying to balance academic and complex financial aid responsibilities as a 19-year-old on your own? Last month I was fortunate to meet with some amazing students and alumni from the foster care system who are attending college for the first time. The students work with Michigan State University’s Fostering Academics, Mentoring Excellence (FAME) program. FAME is an MSU-based resource center offering support and help for foster youth alumni, youth in kinship care, those experienced homelessness, or youth who are otherwise independent.
I was there to participate in a listening session, sponsored by Michigan’s Children and FAME, to hear first-hand about student experiences. As a policy advocate, I also found the discussion valuable for uncovering ideas to seek changes to strengthen students’ chances for academic and life success. Joining us at Snyder Hall was Karie Ward, representing the statewide group, Fostering Success Michigan, and Manon Steel, from The Institute for College Access Network. Our host was Chiquita Whittington of FAME.
The students identified several common barriers they faced, including administrative burdens, financial insecurity, and inadequate on-campus support. FAME does advocate and support these students, however, there are not enough staff for the numbers of students needing help. Navigators have always been a great resource for students and more navigators are needed, the students agreed. Their expertise and authority are critical. Researching and identifying state budget support is just one way that staff help.
Students and their campus advocates said that non-traditional students struggle with accessing housing, paying for food, transportation, and other basic needs. Although discretionary FAME program spending is available for emergency needs, these dollars are labeled as “gifts” with many funding sources unavailable for certain emergencies. A possible solution suggested by Ward would establish a statewide emergency fund for all Michigan students. Possible solutions might include expanding emergency funding to address costly issues students routinely contend with, including unexpected car repairs, medical emergencies, rent, for example. Another suggestion: financial support from unused Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) fund or federal Chafee Program funds designated for youth who have aged out of foster care. In the works is a Foster Care Alumni Tuition Waiver that other states have implemented.
Students also told about the frustrations they’ve experienced with the not-uncommon loss of personal data and records within large institutions. Among these: Issues with lost federal financial aid award letters, and communications related to independent student and disability status. FAME’s Whittington suggested that increasing the number of student mentors could help with the timely and often complicated process of tracking down lost or missing student documents.
Finally, students discussed need-based, and merit-based scholarships which are taxed as income. This issue is compounded when emergency funds are added to a student’s “bill” or award amount, which then increases the student’s taxable income. This raises questions. Is this a state-or federally-driven issue and is change even possible?
All in all, it was a wonderful event with powerful experiences being shared for the betterment of all involved. Michigan’s Children looks forward to following up on the information gathered in order to better address these issues and others going forward.
Lindsay W. Huddleston II is a Policy and Program Associate at Michigan’s Children. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.