Thursday, March 27, 2008

Gauranteed spots at Cal State San Marcos for qualified foster care alumni

Former foster children guaranteed CSUSM slots
Moss, Andrea. North County Times, March 25, 2008.

SAN MARCOS ---- Former foster children in San Diego County who meet minimum admissions requirements will be guaranteed spots at Cal State San Marcos under an agreement that college and county officials are slated to sign today.

The agreement dramatically expands an arrangement reached in May 2007 that covered only San Pasqual Academy, a residential center for foster care just outside Escondido's city limits.

University officials said they believe the San Marcos campus is the first in the 23-campus California State University system to reach an admissions agreement covering every foster child in a particular county.

Jim Mickelson, director of a special program at the university designed to attract children who lived in foster homes, said the new agreement is important because national statistics show that half of children raised in foster care do not get high school degrees, and only 3 percent actually go to college.

Only half of those make it through four years of higher education, he said.

Melissa Johnson, a Palomar College student who was in the county's foster system from the time she was 16 until she turned 18, said Tuesday that a lack of money was only one hurdle for young people raised in foster care.

"I think that a lot of foster youth who are turning 18 and transitioning out of their foster home are already going through so much stress in their lives that they really shy away from more stress, like applying for college," she said, adding that her own attention was focused on earning a living and trying to set up her own apartment.

Her perspective changed, Johnson said, after she heard a grocery store co-worker say she wished she had gone to college.

"She was like 40 and a cashier," said Johnson. "I started really thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, and I decided I wanted to go to college."

Her caseworker helped guide her through the maze of paperwork that got her into Palomar, where she is a chemistry major. She also got a financial aid package that made attending college possible, Johnson said.

The new agreement will "absolutely" make the entire process easier, she said. "If they're guaranteed admission, I think a lot of foster youth will really take the initiative and apply for college," she said.

Sarah Colton, a former foster child who attends Cal State San Marcos, said the deal will offer hope to teens who think college is out of reach and fear being rejected if they apply.

The plan is "a huge opportunity" for youth who lack the support given to many of their peers when it comes time to consider college, said Margo Fudge, a county child welfare official.

"Foster youth are challenged with things that many kids take for granted," she said Tuesday. "Simply graduating from high school ---- foster youth change locations many times. That makes it harder to graduate. There's higher rates of homelessness and incarceration."

San Diego County had an average of 6,222 children in its foster care system in fiscal year 2006-07. Fudge said it was difficult to pinpoint the average length of stay because some children enter the system only to leave it within 12 months, while others come in young and stay for 10 or 15 years.

About 200 youth in the system turn 18 every year, though, she said.

The county offers special programs designed to help young adults make the move from foster care to independent living. Those include transitional housing and independent living skills classes that teach young people who lived in foster homes how to interview for jobs, balance a checkbook and other things they need to know to make it on a day-to-day basis.

University President Karen Haynes and Jean Shepard, director of the county's Health and Human Services Agency, are scheduled to formalize the deal by signing a memorandum of understanding at a 9:30 a.m. ceremony on campus.

Mickelson, the university official focused on recruiting former foster children, said he hopes to attract 10 such students each year.

"We'll try to do everything we can to try to get them to think about it," he said.

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