ANNAPOLIS (January 26, 2018)—Verging on adulthood, Shalita O'Neale faced a big decision: college or family?
"I had a family member who wanted to adopt me but they felt it would be best if I stayed in the foster care system because of the gift of post-secondary education," O'Neale told a panel of Maryland lawmakers last week.
"This was a barrier for adoption for me…I did stay in foster care and I aged out at age 21," said O'Neale, foster youth ombudsman for the Department of Human Services.
Maryland legislators want to make that decision easier with a proposed expansion of tuition grants to help more teens who have gone through the foster care system get a higher education.
This bill would extend free in-state tuition for public institutions to students who were 13 or older in foster care for at least a year, but later reunited with their parents or adopted.
Senate bill 85, requested by the Department of Human Services and approved by the Maryland Senate on Tuesday, also extended the time frame for foster youth to obtain their degrees from 5 to 10 years.
The bill is expected to go through the House of Delegates, which would have to approve it before it would become law.
Current law requires an individual placed in foster care after age 13 to stay in out-of-home care though their high school graduation, GED completion or their 18th birthday in order to keep their college tuition-free. If they are adopted or placed into other guardianship, they lose their eligibility.
This discourages "older foster youth to achieve permanency, if it means they will not be afforded the same privilege of attending college—tuition free," said the Advocates for Children and Youth, a charity based in Silver Spring, Maryland, in testimony presented to the committee.
College hopeful "Cameron,"—a pseudonym to ensure confidentiality—was placed in foster care after age 13 due to his parents' substance abuse and domestic violence, according to Erica LeMon, Director of Advocacy for Children and Families at Maryland Legal Aid.
His father attended counseling and substance abuse treatment to become a suitable parent for Cameron, allowing the two to reunite over a year later, said LeMon.
"This (new) measure would make Cameron eligible for the waiver and enable him to access a college education which otherwise may be out of reach," LeMon told the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
A study done by the National Center for Education Statistics found that 84 percent of 17- and 18-year-old foster youths report wanting to go to college, but only 20 percent of those who graduate high school attend college, and only between 2 percent and 9 percent actually earn their bachelor's degree.
Only 26 percent of youth in foster care who attend a 4-year college or university will obtain their degree in 6 years, the study found. Almost 57 percent of students who enrolled in U.S. colleges and universities in the fall of 2011 completed school within six years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse, an education non-profit.
"I didn't have an adopted family," O'Neale said. Instead, she went to college. "I would've liked to have both."