A student with experience in foster care wears his college graduation robe

Economic mobility through college prep and free college for students with experience in foster care

California advocates are providing the pathway to college for
Sen. Angelique Ashby, 8th Senate District, California State Senate

Students with experience in foster care in California may be able to attend college for free, thanks to a boost in a state-provided scholarship. “Far too many foster youth want to go to college and are unable to afford it,” says Sen. Angelique Ashby, 8th Senate District, California State Senate.

The 2023-24 budget enhances the Middle Class Scholarship Fostering Futures program, and includes $25 million in funding that can cover the costs for students with experience in foster care (SEFC) who enroll at a University of California or California State University school.

“This funding will ensure that California’s most vulnerable young people can take agency over their lives by seeking higher education. For foster youth who have lost everything, this bill provides hope that they can attend college without crippling debt – taking one critical step toward our state’s goal of making college attainable for all, and making foster youth the first to achieve debt-free college in California.”

Advocating for Students with Experience in Foster Care

“This provides education access and upward mobility to so many young people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to going to college and feeling comfortable enough to not have to worry about working several jobs in order to get through college or taking on extensive debt,” says Lyndsey Wilson, chief executive officer of First Star, a nonprofit that partners with colleges to provide college preparation programs.

“Also, just by approaching education, it plays a crucial role in the cycle of poverty. So, it’s reducing socioeconomic barriers for our young people. And by doing so, it’s providing and allowing for the workforce to be more inclusive by including a lot more students, especially those that have foster care in their background.”

Lyndsey Wilson, CEO, First Star

First Star launched its first college collaboration, First Star Academy, in 2011 with UCLA.

It’s an immersive on-campus experience for youth in foster care while they’re still in high school. The program helps them grow academically, socially, and helps them develop life skills they need as they enter adulthood. There are now 11 First Star Academies at colleges and universities in California, Arizona, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.

The organization has strong relationships with child welfare. Those agencies provide a list of young people ages 12-14 who live within 45 minutes of First Star Academy school. Once they graduate high school, students aren’t obligated to enroll in their respective academy school, but the nonprofit continues their support through an alumni mentorship program and lending their expertise to bridge the gaps that this special population may need.

For example, first-year students with experience in foster care (SEFC) may not have resources to purchase items to decorate a dorm room, or even the transportation to shop for supplies. Funds allocated for books may be used for such items.

During school breaks such as Thanksgiving, the holidays, or in the spring, students may not have a home where they can return. First Star staff has heard from some students that they stayed in homeless shelters while their campuses were closed. Or if they were able to stay on campus, the dining halls may be closed, as well as health care facilities.

“We research the universities right there along with them and say, ‘Okay, let’s see what this university offers. Do they have a Guardian Scholars program? Do they offer year-round housing? Do they offer these different necessities that we know will make the experience much better for our students?’” Wilson says. “We go through that list to ensure that they’re going to a university that really honors who they are and their experiences.”

Passionate About Advocating for Foster Youth

First Star alum Isael Andrade is familiar with some of those experiences. He has been in foster care since middle school. He was introduced to the First Star Academy at UCLA during his freshman year of high school.

“First Star is a village,” he says. “You never feel lonely when you’re at First Star.”

Isael Andrade, alumnus, First Star

During his time in the academy, he recalls the first two years of monthly meetups focused on academics, the occasional field trip, and guest speakers. The summer residencies gave students a chance to try new things like filmmaking with the help of UCLA staff.

It was also his first taste of advocating for foster youth as a speaker at a national summit on behalf of First Star. His last two years of the academy concentrated on college preparation, restorative healing, and bonding with other SEFCs about shared experiences.

“At a high level, the first two years are spent building up the kids, making them individuals, building their self-efficacy, making sure they know they’re loved, and that they have a voice,” Andrade recalls.

“The last two years is putting that self-efficacy to the test. Preparing for college. [First Star] gave you the drive. Helped you believe in yourself. Now let’s put it to work.”

Ultimately, he earned a full scholarship to Chapman University, even though he had never considered college as a possibility.

“I had no idea what college was. I didn’t know that was a concept. I didn’t know that was a thing people did. I knew you went to high school and I thought that was it,” Andrade says.

“Foster care is interesting because you feel very removed from world. Add to the fact that I grew up very poor, so I didn’t have technology until high school and you feel removed from the cultural mainstream. So up to that point, I didn’t understand what any of that was. When you spend so much time in survival mode, you don’t really have time to think about these things.”

Andrade was the first in his family to graduate high school and attend college. He became a First Star alumni mentor and is now pursuing his master’s degree. He says his love of storytelling to advocate for foster youth continues to be his passion. And his loyalty to First Star is stronger than ever. He was just named to the organization’s board.

“If it wasn’t for First Star, I don’t know where I’d be in life,” Andrade says. “I don’t think I’ll feel like I’ve done enough until First Star… is a household name.”

The nonprofit and its impact are growing. Wilson estimates First Star is serving a thousand students across the country. She declines to share official numbers of its success in terms of college graduation rates, but says the high school graduation rate is 97%. Wilson adds she would like to see a time when an organization like hers is no longer needed for students who experience foster care.

Wilson adds, “First Star offers an opportunity to dream.”