Editorial: State should make foster care program permanent

In 2013, then Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law a five-year pilot program that would give children raised in foster homes free tuition at the state’s public universities and colleges.

That program is due to expire next year. State lawmakers should begin work now on making that program permanent and send it to Gov. Doug Ducey in the next year.

To be eligible, youth must be in foster care, or were adopted from foster care at age 16 or older; they must be younger than 23; and they must have less than $10,000 in assets.

Once they meet those requirements, they can get a waiver from tuition and fees at any of the state’s three universities or 10 community college districts. They can also transfer between schools.

Few can doubt the need to give these children a helping hand. Teens who have experienced foster care have higher rates of homelessness, incarceration, teen pregnancy and substance abuse, according to research by Foster Care to Success.

They also have a higher dependence on public assistance and higher rates of unemployment than their peers, the research shows.

That makes sense. They don’t have the traditional support structure that many of their peers have, especially after they age out of the system. The state will end up paying for them one way, or the other. Do they help them with college costs, or do they pay to keep them locked up or hand them unemployment checks and subsidize their medical expenses?

It is more beneficial for the state to pay the cost of the education so that they become contributing members of society, paying taxes and improving their neighborhoods. The alternative is allowing some of them to become drains on scarce tax dollars.

It also is the right thing to do. These children were put into difficult circumstances through no fault of their own. While many children had the benefit of a happy home and parents who loved and cared for them, they instead had a great deal of turmoil and uncertainty.

Some are lucky and get paired with great foster parents who take the role seriously and give them the same love they would their own children. Others are not that lucky.

A federal grant pays for the first $2,500 of the costs of a student each semester and then the state picks up any additional expense. About 700 youth age out of foster care each year, according to Arizona juvenile court records and the Arizona Department of Child Safety.

Before this program began, only one in five went on to attend college. Only 3 percent graduated with a bachelor’s degree.

An in-depth study should be done to see what worked, and what didn’t, and where improvements can be made. But the goals of this program remain worthy and it is something the state should continue past 2018.