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The Fight to Make College Free for Foster Youth
Advocates are lobbying for NY to pay our tuition
Victor Tanis-Stoll
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Additional reporting by Kobe Borden and Anthony Turner

Most foster youth are encouraged to pursue a college education, but many of us lack financial support or guidance to get into and finish college.

Foster Youth Success Alliance (FYSA, fysany.org) thinks that the state should provide that support. FYSA is a statewide group of agencies, advocates, and supporters launched in December 2013 by the Children’s Aid Society. FYSA’s first initiative is the Foster College Success Campaign, which calls on the state to pay college costs for all foster youth in New York.

This ambitious effort is led by a former foster youth who’s only 27, Jessica Maxwell. She has help from a lobbying firm and researchers, and she collaborates with many other nonprofits including Good Shepherd Services, Lawyers for Children, and Youth Power! But Jessica basically runs the project.

Under FYSA’s proposal, tuition, fees, and housing expenses for public universities would be paid by the state. If a student wanted to go to a private university, the state would pay for some, but not all, of the costs. “We found that about 25% of students who are or were in care attend private universities, so we don’t want to lock students out of there,” Jessica said when we interviewed her. The proposal does not cover for-profit schools like DeVry or ITT Tech.

Because so many foster youth who start college don’t graduate, the proposal also includes an adviser to support students the whole time they’re in college. It offers foster students the option to come to campus earlier than others, for “summer transition,” something that’s already part of New York State’s Higher Education Opportunity Programs for economically and academically disadvantaged students. An incoming freshman would arrive two to eight weeks before school starts to take academic preparedness classes and get adjusted to living in a dorm.

FYSA calculates there will be about 375 incoming freshmen the first year. Based on that, the plan would cost the state $2.9 million for one year. For context, New York State’s operating budget for 2015 is $92 billion. It really is, as Jessica says, “a drop in the bucket.”

How the Campaign for Free College Works

FYSA is working on four fronts to try to turn its proposal into state law. There’s communications, which “uses traditional and social media strategies to get the news of the campaign out,” Jessica explains. There’s lobbying elected officials or other state employees, which is explained more below. There’s community outreach and engagement to get foster youth involved.

But first there needs to be research to make sure they’re identifying the problem right and studying how others have solved it. Jessica says, “We have a research consultant writing our reports, but I guide their direction, what information they get. I also do my own research to stay up to date about what’s happening here in New York City, the state, and across the country on this issue.”

The research consultant for FYSA started out by interviewing foster youth across the state and looking at what other states were doing. They found that 21 states had tuition waiver policies (now it’s 22). “We also looked more broadly at all programs for youth who need financial aid and academic support,” Jessica says. FYSA looked at how the 21 states managed to pass legislation covering tuition waiver programs.

When we talked to her in late January, Jessica was planning for Advocacy Day, which was coming up soon after our interview. She brings foster youth from across the state to the Capitol in Albany to lobby for FYSA’s plan. We asked what exactly “lobby” means and she explained, “Lobbying is where a group organizes around a specific issue and will go talk to legislators. On Advocacy Day, we have a press conference and have individual meetings with state assembly members and senators and their staff.” (The Senate and the Assembly are the two houses in New York’s state legislature.) Before the trip, Jessica and others train the youth in telling their stories and highlighting problems in the system.

Jessica explains how FYSA protects young advocates. “The advocacy training helps each young person comfortably craft their story to fit into the message so that they’re not over-sharing. Telling their stories puts them in an emotionally vulnerable place—being in foster care is a hard thing to deal with and talk about, so we want to ensure that young people feel comfortable talking to the elected officials.”

image by YC-Art Dept

Throughout the year, Jessica, other FYSA supporters, and youth advocates also interact with the governor’s office and non-elected officials in the state’s budget office, Office of Children and Family Services, ACS (Children’s Services in New York City), and the County Administration officials in other districts.

Persuasive Communication

Jessica is a registered New York State lobbyist. She says lobbying well “is about being able to persuasively communicate what you need from a legislator, communicate the issue, and suggestions for improving those problems.” You have to do it fast, though; most lawmakers give you half an hour, tops.

“The first meeting I had lobbying a legislator, the guy stopped me and said, ‘What do you want? How much does it cost?’” Jessica laughs. “It was shocking. I was like, ‘Um, I’m not there yet.’”

Jessica first held an Advocacy Day in May 2014. She explained how FYSA reaches out to legislators on certain committees that govern foster care and college. “We’re targeting the higher education committees, the children and families committees, and the finance committees because we’re asking for money.”

Jessica explains how the group tailors what they say to each legislator. “Say this person’s a Republican and is focused on economic opportunity. Like in Buffalo, where they just received what they’re calling the Buffalo Billion—state money to do redevelopment.” The way FYSA frames the issue to those lawmakers is to emphasize that people who finish college make more money, which increases the “tax base”—people who pay taxes that the state uses. “We try to show them that there is an opportunity here for the community, whereas other legislators might get a more tear-jerker story.”

Some don’t need either. “Donna Lupardo, the Chair of Children and Families Committee, worked in child welfare prior to being in the legislature. She totally gets this work that we’re doing, so it was more about explaining how this specific plan is important and why the time is now.”

The 2015 Advocacy Day got delayed because of weather. By the time the youth traveled to Albany, the governor’s proposed budget had already come out, and it did not include FYSA’s proposed program. So the group went for Plan B, Jessica says. “We asked Assembly members to sign a letter and send it to new Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie requesting our $3 million proposal be included. Five members signed the letter.”

Raise Your Voice

We asked Jessica how she got so knowledgeable and skilled at such a young age. She says, “I think I was born to be an advocate.... I can be very assertive when I want to get my point across and persuasive if I want to induce people to do the right thing. My family has encouraged me to be civically involved.”

When Jessica was 13, she led a campaign in her grandmother’s housing project in the Bronx to get building conditions improved. She gathered other young people to complain at their City Council member’s office and campaign for his opponent. “We had a series of protests in front of the building—that doesn’t really look good for management.” The group got news coverage and got the building repairs done. The landlord even designated an apartment to be the community affairs department, which eventually became a tenant’s association. Not bad for a 13-year-old.

Jessica graduated from Hunter College with a double major in sociology and urban studies with a double minor in political science and media. “I thought I was going to be a journalist and a lawyer and all of these things so I tried everything.”

All those skills serve her now, but having been in care is important too. Most lawmakers don’t know much about foster care, and that’s why Advocacy Day can be so powerful. “Young people in care are the best storytellers. It’s so helpful to have them asking for what they need themselves,” Jessica says.

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(FCYU-2015-04-24)

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