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Teens aging out of foster system to get free college tuition

Charlie Megginson Education, Headlines

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Holding the signed House Bill 123 behind Gov. John Carney are, left, Daykia Hunter-McKnight and Mayda Barrios.

Children who spend all or part of their teen years in Delaware’s foster care system will now be able to attend state public colleges and universities free of charge.

Under House Bill 123, signed into law by Gov. John Carney Thursday, foster youth will be able to benefit from a tuition waiver program that will cover the cost of tuition, fees, room and board at the University of Delaware, Delaware State University and Delaware Technical and Community College. 

“The best gift we can give to our children — and these are our children — is a good education,” Carney said. “That’s exactly what this bill does.” 

The legislation aims to support foster children who may not have the financial resources, stability and guidance to cover the expenses associated with higher education while also succeeding academically. 

According to the National Foster Youth Initiative, just 3% of former foster youth obtain a college degree.

Daykia Hunter-McKnight, who serves as a legislative aide to the bill’s Senate sponsor, Sen. Elizabeth “Tizzy” Lockman, was in Delaware’s foster care system when she was a child.

She first learned that only 3% of foster youth earn a college degree while she was a student at the University of Delaware. At first, she was relieved that she had made it into that small percentage.

“But then I was also saddened by the injustice that many kids in foster care face,” Hunter-McKnight said. “They should not be denied the access to free education or the many possibilities that come with going to college.”

She said she knows the uncertainty foster children face when they age out of the system — how scary it can be to go out into the world on their own. 

Under the new law, Hunter-McKnight said, their lives will drastically improve.

“They will have the financial support that they need to go to school,” she said. “They can focus on things like sports, traveling, study abroad, and other things like that instead of having to work multiple jobs like I had to do to make it through school.”

In order to receive a waiver under the new law, recipients must be a current resident of Delaware under the age of 27, and either be eligible for the Delaware Chafee Education and Training Voucher program or have spent 12 or more months in the custody of the Department of Services for Children, Youth & Their Families between the ages of 14 and 18. 

The measure passed unanimously in the Senate and came close in the House of Representatives where Reps. Rich Collins, R-Millsboro and Ruth Briggs King, R-Georgetown, voted no.

Delaware’s three institutions of higher education will be required to appoint a staff person as the point of contact for the program’s beneficiaries.

That staff member will assist students in obtaining eligibility, federal and state resources, grants and scholarships. They will also connect students with on- and off-campus resources including admissions, housing financial aid, health, mental health, tutoring, career, academic advising and other services.

Mayda Barrios, a Delaware State University student, has long been working to increase access to higher education as a member of the state’s Youth Advisory Council.

She’ll graduate in May 2022 — too late for her to benefit from the program. But she said during the signing ceremony that she’s OK with that because she’s so happy that other foster youth will have more opportunities than she did. 

“We’re all alone,” she said. “We have to pay all the bills ourselves. We have to pay for the food we eat, we have to pay for everything and doing that alone was a challenge.”

She worked long hours to secure scholarships for her education, which she received “by the grace of God.” Others might not have had the same opportunities, she said, but now they will.

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