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The foster care system is pushing college students into homelessness

When your 18th birthday is like walking the plank

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Zulema Meza stays intermittently in an assortment of residences while earning her basic emergency technician’s degree at Delgado Community College in New Orleans. Now 18 years old, Meza entered foster care in 2014, received her high school equivalency diploma in 2015 while in custody, but became too old for foster care during her first semester in college.

Meza currently lives with someone she met through a friend. “I struggled not knowing where I was going to live,” says Meza. “I want to finish college. I want to become stable on my own. There should be support for people trying to do better for themselves.”

Delgado Community College student Zulema Meza, 18, has aged out of foster care.

When a child in foster care turns 18 and graduates from high school, the state pulls funding. This renders the student homeless. State policy shouldn’t mean adulthood hits youth in foster care harder than the rest. It certainly shouldn’t make students homeless. If states really want to see children successfully transition from foster care to life, then they would see that collegians have a home to return to after class. At the very least, don’t take away the homes students had on their 18th birthday as a backwards birthday present!

Home instability is a significant risk factor that reduces one’s chances of graduating from college. Homelessness isn’t the only obstacle — it is often compounded by other risk factors like part-time enrollment, delayed entry into college after high school, not having a regular high school diploma, having dependent children, being a single parent, being financially independent of parents, and working full-time while enrolled.

A young person needs a home during and after the college. The Pew Research Center found “in 2012, 36 percent of the nation’s young adults ages 18 to 31—the so-called Millennial generation—were living in their parents’ home.” The percentage is the highest in 40 years. Job and housing markets make it more difficult for young adults to leave the nest.

Our sons and daughters aren’t sent into the wilderness of adulthood any more as if mandated by some mean-spirited rite of passage. But states are converting graduation stages into planks that students in foster care are forced to walk off.

May, the month known for dream-filled graduation ceremonies, is also Foster Care Month. Of the foster care population in Louisiana, one in five will become homeless after age 18, according to data provided by Court Appointed Special Advocates (CASA) of New Orleans. Only 58 percent graduate from high school compared to 71 percent of all 19-year-olds in Louisiana. Fewer than 3 percent earn a college degree by age 25 (the state average is 28 percent).

Related: In New Orleans, a case study in how school, health care decentralization affect neediest children

It’s inexplicable that states would remove funding for services provided to the relative few in care who make it to college.

There are some national and local resources. The College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 provides for financial aid and access programs for homeless collegians. Still, students who have been pushed out of foster care lack community provisions to fill gaps created by states.

Boys Town Louisiana received a $15,000 grant in January of this year from the Oscar J. Tolmas Charitable Trust to seed a support system in New Orleans for those who age out of the foster care system. Funds are used to help participants develop “skills for independent living, secure safe, affordable housing, and explore job opportunities.”

“Just imagine if your son or daughter decided to move out of the house. Fifteen thousand would seem an insufficient amount for one child, let alone the approximate 250 youth in Louisiana who age out of foster care,” said Darrell Johnson, Director of Development for Boy Town Louisiana.

It is insufficient. Local providers need the resources to increase college graduation rates among those who happen to have been in foster care. State policy must change also.

Meza is right; services should continue through at least six years of college enrollment. Why should we expect more from children in foster care than those who aren’t? A home doesn’t end when a person turns 18.

Meza should earn her EMS certification this coming June. Shortly thereafter, she hopes to find employment to be able to find a stable residence. Meza plans to continue taking classes while working, in order to receive her paramedic certification.

“Trying to go to school and work on minimum wage is impossible for people in our situation,” she says.

Doing what society expects young people to do shouldn’t be impossible. All students need a home to have a reasonable shot at attaining a degree, including youths who transition from foster care. State policy certainly shouldn’t take homes away from collegians. Leaving foster care shouldn’t mean you lose a home.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more columns by Andre Perry.

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Andre Perry

Dr. Andre Perry, a contributing writer, is a David M. Rubenstein Fellow at The Brookings Institution. Perry was the founding dean of urban education at… See Archive

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