By Joseph Skyler
An alarmingly small proportion of current and former foster youth who begin college actually complete their degrees. California Assembly Bill 194 was designed to improve those students' chances of success. The law, which took effect Jan. 1, 2012, grants students who are or have been in foster care priority registration for college courses.
AB 194, introduced in January 2011 by California State Assembly Member Jim Beall (D-San Jose), passed both the Senate and Assembly by wide margins. The law is expected to affect between 1,500 and 3,000 students between the ages of 18 and 22. Under AB 194, these students, along with athletes, veterans, and disabled students, must be given priority status when registering for courses at California State University or California Community colleges. While the bill does not make the same requirement of the University of California system, it "requests" that UC campuses afford the same priority status to current and former foster youth.
While 70 percent of California foster youth express a desire to go to college, only 20 percent actually matriculate, and of those only 2 to 3 percent end up graduating.
David Ambroz, executive director of the Los Angeles City College Foundation, says that "after overcoming every imaginable obstacle to going to college, we're losing foster youth because they cannot get the classes they need."1
Getting the classes one needs to graduate can indeed be a pressing concern. Lamiecher Williams, a former foster youth who is now a senior at UC Berkeley, said, "what I hated most about registering for classes was the competitive vibe of it, and how stressful it was. You'd have a registration period that started at 1 pm, then by 1:01 pm all of the classes you wanted would be filled. It was so nerve-racking."2 AB 194 seeks to reduce one source of student stress and hopefully increase graduation rates as a result.
Foster youth who enter college must deal with a host of anxieties and concerns. Many of these, like eating well, making and keeping friends, and finding time to study, are shared by other students. But foster youth often also have to cope with other matters, like social stigma, depression, feelings of alienation, recurring family dysfunction, and the fear of becoming homeless. These students may suffer from a lack of any real support system and from a sense of profound insecurity about their future. When registering for the classes they want becomes difficult or impossible, they may get discouraged to the point of dropping out. As Teri Kook, director of child welfare at the San Francisco-based Stuart Foundation said when advocating for AB 194's passage, "If we can do this for football players, why wouldn't we do this for foster youth, who have far fewer resources?"3
Many observers feel that AB 194 is not enough. Deborah Lowe Martinez, director of the Cal Independent Scholars Network at UC Berkeley, noted:
"The issue we truly need to address is this social stigma and self-loathing that so many foster youth constantly experience. You would be surprised by the small amount of former foster youth who are willing to self-identify, [and that's] because of the fear they have of being socially stigmatized. Many foster youth just want to put their pasts behind them and move on with their lives, but what they don't realize is that identifying themselves can open [up] a world of assistance and opportunities that they never could have imagined."4
Because so few former foster youth self-identity, Martinez believes the true challenge of AB 194 lies with its implementation. How can students benefit from AB 194 if they won't admit they've been in foster care?
Despite such concerns, many students are excited about the new law. Cody Johnson, a former foster youth and a first-year student at UC Berkeley, said, "It would be nice to actually have a chance to get into the good classes, to be able to explore all possible scheduling routes. Class registration is just such a hassle, and not being able to get the classes you need makes it really hard to plan ahead for future semesters."5
AB 194's passage follows on the heels of AB 12, the California Fostering Connections to Success Act, a law enacted last year that allows foster youth to stay in the system until they turn 21. By giving added support to foster youth 18 and older, AB 194 constitutes a welcome attempt to raise the extremely low college graduation rates of current and former foster youth. Although implementing the law may be difficult, its passage has brought much needed attention to the needs of foster youth attending college.