At 28, Kalie Rose Sort has spent six years working toward her first degree at the University of Victoria, piling up $48,000 in student loans and attributing her delayed graduation to money woes and stress — rooted in her teenage life in and out of the B.C. foster-care system.
Unlike many post-secondary students on their own for the first time, Sort left home at 15, armed with a fierce intelligence and drive that put her on campus instead of the streets. As few as one per cent of former foster kids make it past high school after they age out of the system at 19, when the streets become a common fate.
Sort doesn’t have to add her current tuition to her massive student debt. UVic has awarded her a bursary of $5,100 toward her final studies in the School of Child and Youth Care, as part of its pilot project aimed at redressing the post-secondary inequity faced by former foster children without family support to bolster their studies. She is one of five recipients at UVic out of 17 applicants to the $100,000 two-year bursary pilot program, and was the winner of UVic president Jamie Cassels’ undergraduate research award last year.
Earlier this week, an anonymous donor committed to a total of $200,000 to support 10 additional students from the initial applicants for the 2014-15 academic year.
“I am extremely grateful,” said Sort, who has worked two to three jobs every year until 2014. “But I am financially disadvantaged to the point that the amount I’m getting is such a small fraction of the current debt load I carry.” When she graduates, she plans to advocate for student loan forgiveness not currently available.
UVic is one of eight post-secondary schools out of 25 in B.C. forgoing tuition for former foster kids in response to a challenge by B.C.’s representative for children and youth, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who said so many end up uneducated, unemployed, homeless, addicted or on welfare.
The first and leading proponent in terms of numbers of students is Vancouver Island University, which has waived $158,000 in tuition for 41 former foster kids currently enrolled, including tuition as well as fees for the student health and dental program, the latter not covered by UVic.
“Eight have come on board, which is good because there was zero when we started,” said Turpel-Lafond, sounding encouraged by hearing positive signals from five more.
It’s “truly remarkable” what so-called free tuition means for an estimated 175 youth across B.C. now able to pursue post-secondary education, she said.
Life is “100 per cent easier,” with the waiver, said Brittany Palmer, 21, who is in third-year criminology at VIU, aiming to become a probation or parole officer working with at-risk youth. Her waiver for tuition, books and parking of $2,200 per semester began in January 2014, after she invested almost $8,000 in tuition for her first two years and just as much in living costs. She could have qualified earlier, but did not know about the program.
Palmer lived independently from 15, not in foster care, surviving on a lot of toast, eggs and fruit and taking on a mothering role to her younger sister. She hopes to graduate in 2016 and expects VIU will help her all the way.
“My goal is to give back what my social worker and VIU have given me.”
Some VIU participants study full time in costly programs while others are part-time single parents in less expensive programs, said president Ralph Nilson, who knows these students and has “learned a lot just sitting listening to their stories and understanding where they’re coming from.”
VIU does not cap the number of waiver recipients — any former foster student who qualifies will get in, he said. The waivers are “a valuable investment” in the long term, and VIU is already looking to 130 fostered students still in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith school district — where he said the rates of poverty and children in care are among the highest in B.C.
Some of the 41 VIU students are in short-term certificate or diploma programs, while UVic concentrates on five students in four-year degree programs.
At UVic, high grades came into play when deciding the successful applicants but financial need is “the primary consideration,” Nolt said.
For Sort “education is a fundamental right and I think every one should have access to education.”
Nolt points to $3 million in bursaries that UVic awards annually, saying they’re for all eligible students, even those who have received the tuition bursary. That said, UVic recognizes the importance of assisting former foster youth and is fundraising in the community to add to the awards in future, she said.
The development office is working with more private donors to secure additional funding in the hopes the program can be further expanded, she said.
Sort knows what it is like to miss high-school classes or get there exhausted from grocery shopping and household chores, isolated from the encouragement other students take for granted but prey to stigma and judgment. Glad to have a loving relationship with her mother, she wishes UVic’s program had a mentorship aspect, that the pilot program was about more than just a financial break.
UVic provides academic, social and emotional supports for all students but thus far has not set up anything for this small cohort. As far as matching former foster youth with mentors, UVic is looking at initiatives offered by the other seven institutions.
“It’s something that we are certainly looking at and looking to see what other schools are offering,” Nolt said.
At VIU, staff on campus try to be there for these vulnerable students, said Nilson.
“They can’t go home and have a bowl of soup with their mom and dad. We provide mentorship opportunities and indeed we’re looking to provide them with work opportunities, as well.”
Nilson said the students are doing well and demonstrate resiliency and strength of character.
“There hasn’t been one that hasn’t come back to me and said: ‘Ralph, what can I do to help?’ It’s fantastic.”
Ontario partners with all of its universities and one-third of its colleges to reimburse them for 40 per cent of tuition waivers now offered to all former foster kids — with up to 850 students expected to qualify in 2013 for a maximum of $6,000 a year for four years.
Turpel-Lafond likes to see that B.C. institutions have “some skin in the game.” She would like the province to put money into living expenses for former foster kids, given that supports cut off at age 22 and recipients must meet many requirements.
Coast Capital credit union has contributed $200,000 to fund living expenses, but otherwise she has been forced to negotiate some arrangement on a child-by-child basis with the private sector, something she said she won’t always be around to do.
“Every year, we have about 400 kids aging out of care,” she said. “My idea is that every single one of them should be in school or employment.”