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 SDCOE Wins FAFSA Challenge for Foster Youth

photo of mindy kukich, michelle lustig, deborah pruitt with FAFSA challenge checkMindy Kukich (from left), Michelle Lustig, and Deborah Pruitt of John Burton Advocates for Youth in Pomona on Tuesday.

​The San Diego County Office of Education (SDCOE) is leading an award-winning effort to improve access to college financial aid for youth in foster care.

SDCOE’S foster youth services team helped 65 percent of San Diego County’s high school seniors in foster care complete the 2018-19 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), winning the large-county category in the California Foster Youth FAFSA Challenge, a statewide effort to improve access to college for youth in foster by helping them complete financial aid forms.

“These youths need a lot of encouragement and assistance to take the life-changing step of applying for financial aid,” said Mindy Kukich, an SDCOE project specialist who spearheaded the work locally. “We led a grassroots effort that included numerous phone calls, emails, and even a few home visits.” 

The FAFSA Challenge, led by John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY), is the first coordinated effort in California specifically designed to reach youth in foster care and help them apply for student aid. The San Francisco-based nonprofit was founded by retired state Sen. John Burton. The Walter S. Johnson Foundation helped fund the FAFSA Challenge in San Diego County.

“The San Diego County Office of Education team has done a great job of opening the doors of higher education to the most vulnerable students to help make their college dreams come true,” Burton said. “They made a huge difference in the lives of these students.”

In San Diego County, Kukich and colleagues helped 97 of the 153 high school seniors in foster care submit completed FAFSA applications. The completion rate was 49 percent for the general population of high school seniors in the county. 

Kukich and Foster Youth Services Director Michelle Lustig accepted a $1,000 award to assist students on behalf of SDCOE on Tuesday at JBAY’s Foster Youth Education Summit in Pomona. The award will go right back to assisting students, with hands-on FAFSA events and small scholarships, Kukich said. Each of the foster youth from San Diego County who applied for financial aid in the FAFSA Challenge will be entered into a drawing for a $500 scholarship to be awarded in May.

Historically, high school students in foster care have submitted the FAFSA at a significantly lower rate than their peers, said JBAY Project Director Debbie Raucher. Challenges include difficulties in identifying and reaching youth in foster care through traditional college awareness and financial aid campaigns.

JBAY is sponsoring legislation introduced by Sen. Jim Beall that would increase access to the Cal Grant B program, which provides vital financial aid to low-income students. SDCOE Superintendent Dr. Paul Gothold sent a letter of support for Senate Bill 940 to Sen. Ricardo Lara, chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

“SB 940 is a smart investment for California,” Gothold said. “When California foster youth are provided with financial aid, they start out on a stronger path for success. Efforts like the FAFSA Challenge and SB 940 will provide thousands of foster youth in our state with the opportunity to earn a college degree and move past the poverty and maltreatment of their pasts to achieve self-sufficiency for their future.” 

San Diego County is home to 2,428 children in foster care, and 1,473 are school age. SDCOE’s Foster Youth and Homeless Education Services department assists and empowers all systems that support these students through systems of support and inter-agency partnerships.

“The lack of college success among foster youth has very real costs, both for the individual and for California,” said County Board of Education President Guadalupe González. “That’s why it’s important that our support does not stop when students in foster care leave the K-12 system.”