Foster youth celebrate as Oregon Senate passes tuition waiver

Work at least two jobs. Go to class if possible. Stay up late studying, if studying is even a priority. This is the life of a foster child in college.

“Studying is the last thing you’re going to do when trying to pay rent and tuition,” current University senior and former foster child Jamie Hinsz said. “If you have any balances, you can’t register for classes. If you don’t register, you drop out. It’s like a chain reaction.”

It’s because of this that Hinsz teamed up with Children First for Oregon to write House Bill 3471, a tuition waiver for foster youth who age out of the system and want to earn a college degree. It would affect all Oregon public institutions of higher learning, including community colleges and the Oregon Health and Science University.

The foster youth of Oregon won a tough battle when on June 21, 2011, Senate passed the waiver 25-4. It currently waits a final decision from Gov. John Kitzhaber.

The requirements state that the one must either be a current foster child or have been in foster care for at least 12 months between the ages of 16-21.

“That targets the age group that basically have zero support from anyone else once they leave the system,” Hinsz said. “It will give (foster youth) incentive to think about college after high school.”

To receive the waiver, all applicants must apply and acknowledge any financial aid, scholarships, grants and loan money, and the waiver will cover the remaining balance in tuition.

Nicole Stapp, a foster child who just graduated high school, is taking a year off of school so that she can go to Portland State University with help from the waiver.

“I’m waiving myself about $10,000 in loans,” Stapp said. “I applied to many scholarship programs, but I didn’t get the ones that I thought would help me the most.”

Because of this, she is waiting for the waiver to come into effect so she doesn’t bury herself in debt.

Pamela Butler, spokesperson for Children First for Oregon, helped set up all the meetings and helped the youth prepare for those meetings.

“I aged out of the system myself,” said Butler, who graduated from the University in 2007. “So many youth have no motivation to even try.”

Still, they faced plenty of opposition from both legislature and the public.

“It really came down to three things. One, how can we choose one population over the other? Two, college is expensive for everyone; we should be working on lowering tuition overall. And three, personal experience,” Butler said.

“One representative talked to us about how he had three to five jobs throughout college, and he didn’t want us to to just take hand outs,” Stapp said.

Through social media, other have made comments about how unfair it was to others.

“They were saying nasty comments like, ‘I should put my kids in foster care so they can get free tuition,’ ” Hinsz said. “They don’t want to see their tax dollars paying for other kids’ tuition.”

However, it isn’t that simple. In fact, tax money isn’t even going into the funding of the waiver. For the most part, universities are taking the money out of their endowments and other private funds for the waiver.

“You can invest a little in their future or you can let them fail,” Butler said. The waiver is the investment, and lawmakers hope it will be successful for foster youth all over Oregon.

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