Applying to college can be overwhelming for any teen without proper guidance. How can the soon-to-be high school graduate navigate the system? Like most other students with traditional family support systems, Virginia Tech junior Josh Lord found the guidance he needed while preparing for college. "All my teachers that I had were very helpful," said Lord. "If I ever had any questions they would help me." Josh sought to pursue a career in engineering and visited colleges based on this interest. "I set up one for [University of Pittsburgh] but other than that, my parents set up the rest of the tours." Josh had a successful transition into college because of the guidance and support he received. However, students in the foster care system often do not have access to this support. Foster Club, a nonprofit which advocates for children in foster care, estimates that by the year 2020 more than 300,000 teens in the U.S. will age out of the foster-care system. These youths are likely to face significant obstacles if they plan to pursue college admissions. William Battles is an educational liaison for Allegheny County Department of Human Services. He works with foster youth in the age range of 16 to 21. "Very few take advantage of some type of post-secondary out-of-state [education] because of the cost," said Battles. "Being an out-of-state student you have to pay out-of-state tuition with room and board too. That's a lot compared to our state schools." It's not just the cost of college, but also the options for paying for it. Most college-bound students in the U.S. can ask a parent to be the required co-signer on a college loan application. Finding a co-signer is more difficult if not impossible for foster care students. James Zuzack is a financial aid adviser at Duquesne University who has a university's perspective on financial aid. "A dependent student may have a parent to sign off on what they call a Parent PLUS Loan to get their money for them," said Zuzack. "But being a foster student, they're going to be independent. And if they're independent, they don't have that option open to them. So they have to fall back on a private education loan." And getting a private loan isn't easy either. "Because of where they are in life right now, they usually don't have much of a credit history, which means that getting a private loan is more difficult and they're normally going to need a co-signer," said Zuzack. "I have experienced that several times with students," said William Battles. "You know, they've applied for the loans and they need a co-signer. And there's just no one out there to be able to cosign." In short, if a parent is not available as a co-signer, there is no obvious alternative. "If not my parents, then I'm really not sure who would cosign the loan for me," said Josh Lord. Foster care youth have an extreme disadvantage, but there is always the possibility that they might go through the system, attend college, and live a successful life. With more focus on our nation's foster youth, there will be a greater number of those who can afford to attend college, graduate, and experience higher education the way every student should -- filled with support and knowing that they can succeed.
This piece was originally a part of the Green Compass, a production of Neighborhood Voices/SLB Radio Productions, Inc. in Pittsburgh, PA.