Eli Imadali for Chalkbeat

Many college students lack the necessary support to finish college. For students who were in the foster care system, sometimes there’s no support at all.

A bill in the Colorado legislature would waive college tuition and fees for students who were in foster care past the age of 13. About 4,500 students would be eligible for the tuition waiver, but only about 15% would participate, according to a state analysis. The cost to the state would be about $694,000 a year.

The bill also would create liaisons at higher education institutions to help foster youth navigate applying for federal financial aid for college. 

The bill, introduced by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, would make Colorado’s tuition policy similar to those of most other states.

In Colorado, only 1 out of 10 kids in foster care age 13 or older enter college by the time they turn 21. Nationally, about 3% of all foster kids earn an associate or higher degree. Those students face numerous obstacles, but many of them boil down to money. They struggle to pay for college while supporting themselves without the safety net that other students can count on.

Keaton Sheagley, 23, who was in the foster care system and is now a Colorado State University Pueblo student, struggled for years before he found his footing. He went to college after graduating from Wheat Ridge High School, but he dropped out from Metropolitan State University of Denver soon after due to mounting costs. 

“I couldn’t keep up,” Sheagley said. “I wasn’t able to pay for tuition, housing, transportation, as well as all the other basic life necessities at the same time.”

The bill was crafted in part by the Colorado Youth Advisory Council, a committee of high school students that help give a voice to student issues across the state. And the bill sponsors include high-ranking members of both parties: Senate Education Chair Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat; Sen. Kevin Priola, a Henderson Republican; House Education Chair Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat; and House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican.

By eliminating the need to pay for college, Zenzinger said the bill allows foster students to think differently about whether college is for them. 

The bill gives students options, she said. Only a few schools across the state offer programs for foster youth, including Colorado State University, MSU Denver, and the University of Colorado Boulder.

“If we want them to be self-sufficient and successful, then we have to give them the tools to do that,” Zenzinger said. “Right now the state is failing them.”

Last year, Colorado created a transition program to help foster youth adjust after they age out of the system. Colorado foster youth also graduate from high school at the lowest rate among various student groups, said Minna Castillo Cohen, Colorado Health and Human Services director of the office of children, youth and families. And they face high risks of becoming homeless, and getting involved in crime. 

Many foster youth find themselves expected to be completely independent. When dorms shut down for holidays, for instance, they might not have a home to go to.

When cash runs low, they have to find ways to keep the lights on and feed themselves.

The free tuition legislation adds increased resources for those students

Removing barriers and increasing support is an imperative, Cohen said.

Sheagley doubted himself after he dropped out of college.  He hit a low point where he started to believe he would never go back to college. He didn’t feel he was worthy of going and there were few people to tell him otherwise.

“It took me about a year to get to the point where I was building myself back up again,” Sheagley said.

Foster youth face many challenges navigating college, said Tori Shuler, Fostering Great Ideas advocacy director. While there are grants and scholarships available to them, they often face finding what they need challenging.

Shuler, who grew up in the foster care system, said she met the same problems as Sheagley did — trying to pay for college and her basic needs at the same time. At one point she found herself without a home. She was lucky to have friends and a connection with foster parents to help support her.

She said she’s “thankful she had the support when everything fell apart.” Even with support, she still needed to work several jobs throughout college, juggling work and school. The students she works with also work a lot — sometimes late at night. They’re exhausted, Shuler said.

“It’s a choice that you have to make between covering your bills and being a great student,” Shuler said. 

That’s the exact scenario students with the Colorado Youth Advisory Council wanted to address, said Livi Christiansen, 16, a member of the council. 

“It’s the responsibility of the government to work for everybody,” Shuler said.

Christiansen and Shuler hope the bill is the start of more support for foster youth in college. For example, many former foster youth miss out on government benefits like food stamps because they earn too much even with low-paying jobs or have taken out student loans that disqualify them. Additional state money to help with living expenses would make it easier for many to stay in college. But this bill helps students feel like they aren’t outcasts, Sheagley said. 

“This offers foster kids a sense of belonging,” he said, “no matter where you choose to belong.”

Higher education reporter for Chalkbeat Colorado in partnership with Open Campus.