College felt impossible to this student in foster care. Then NYC offered to pay.

Three women stand in a group meeting others
A city official speaks to three young adults during a press conference announcing a new program that helps cover college tuition and living expenses for students in foster care. Marowa, pictured in the center, was one of 300 students who used the program this year. (Ed Reed / Mayoral Photography Office)

At the age of 16, Marowa, a Bangladeshi immigrant, entered New York City’s foster care system, after her parents had physically abused her for much of her life. 

Two years and five foster homes later, Marowa fled to California to build a new life but returned to New York City by the age of 19, in search of stable housing and a familiar community. (Marowa said she does not have a legal last name.)

After she reluctantly re-entered foster care, a social worker asked Marowa if she knew that Administration for Children’s Services, or ACS, could help her pay for college and other expenses. 

“I was just thinking about surviving,” Marowa said. “I wasn’t really thinking about college.” 

Last week — five years after that conversation — Marowa graduated with a bachelor’s degree in English literature from Brooklyn College, with the help of the financial assistance that her social worker had described. 

Marowa is one of 300 students who used the College Choice program this year to fund up to $15,000 of tuition, room and board, and $60 in daily stipends, according to ACS officials, who said that no eligible student who applied on time was turned away. 

The program, announced in October, combined with other state and federal grants, covers all tuition and living expenses for these students. It was similar to other programs that preceded it when Marowa first entered college with some updates that aim to ease the  burden on participants: College Choice doubles the daily student stipend and allows them to live on the same campus as where they go to school. 

For the 2023-24 school year, the Adams administration has proposed keeping this $10 million initiative.

A more stable future for students in foster care

The program attempts to set up a stable future for students like Marowa, who might otherwise be unable to pay for college or incur student loan debt, even with federal and state grants. In New York City, the cost of higher education is not the only barrier: Last school year, 45% of students in foster care graduated from high school on time, compared with 84% of students not in foster care, according to state data. In 2019, before the pandemic and the loosening of certain graduation requirements, just one-quarter of youth in foster care graduated on time. 

The city’s Fair Futures program, which advocates pushed the city to create in recent years, attempts to improve those graduation rates by linking students in foster care ages 11 to 26 with academic, career, and life coaching. 

Even children who make it to college can find it financially impossible to stay enrolled, said Jess Dannhauser, commissioner for ACS. Dannhauser, who previously oversaw foster care agency Graham Windam, said he’d hear about students who dropped out of college because they couldn’t afford pricey textbooks or even doing laundry regularly. 

“The things that came up both were expensive, and it was hard to be nimble to meet all those needs,” Dannhauser said of students’ experiences. “And it sends a message that they don’t belong there.”

In order to be eligible for College Choice, young people must currently be in foster care, earn a minimum GPA of 2.0, and apply for financial aid grants, such as the federal Pell Grant and New York State’s Tuition Assistance Program, or TAP.

Larger stipends and more places to live

Before Marowa used College Choice this year, there was “The Dorm Project,” which used a total of about $7 million to provide housing and tuition help to about 200 students in foster care last year who attended CUNY schools. ACS also provided $31 daily stipends to college students in foster care. 

Marowa pictured on her graduation day at Brooklyn College. (Courtesy / Marowa)

College Choice ironed out a few wrinkles with the previous program, officials said. Unlike previous years, the program helps cover costs for students who attend any college, not just CUNY. Students also receive a $60 daily stipend — and will now receive that money for six months after graduation. 

The old program provided year-round housing at certain CUNY dorms where the city had purchased space but not necessarily where students were attending school. In what felt like a particularly important change for children, College Choice allows them to live on the same campus where they’re enrolled.

“We heard from young people that they really wanted to live and go to school in the same place, that they wanted that choice, that they wanted to have the opportunity to go out of state,” said ACS Commissioner Jess Dannhauser in an interview. “And the College Choice program allows for that.”

The program is a positive start at helping students access college, but broadening the eligibility requirements would help many more students in need, said Chantal Hinds, a researcher focused on students in foster care at the Next100, a policy think tank based in New York City. Hinds noted that the program doesn’t benefit students who aren’t in foster care anymore but might still be struggling financially and mentally from their experience in the system. 

She noted that Marowa could have been one of those teens had she not re-entered the foster care system after her time in California. 

“If you’re in the foster system for a month or 12 years, you’re still impacted,” said Hinds, who was once an attorney for ACS. “There was still a significant portion of your life that was changed because of this experience.” 

Marowa began receiving financial support through the old college aid programs and then switched over to College Choice this past school year, which meant her daily stipend doubled in size. 

In college, Marowa changed majors twice before landing on English literature, which she fell in love with after being forced as a newcomer immigrant years ago to learn the language.

Marowa was one of the students who pushed ACS for better college assistance, and she continues to advocate on behalf of foster youth, both she and an ACS spokesperson said. She’s considering a teaching job offer, and has qualified for subsidized housing.

Once she becomes more financially stable, she’s hoping to fulfill a longtime dream: to become a foster mom.

Reema Amin is a reporter covering New York City public schools. Contact Reema at ramin@chalkbeat.org.

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