Lawmaker seeks university tuition waivers for foster kids

Chris Spiva grew up in a group home where every hour of his day was tightly scheduled.

Unlike other kids, he wasn't granted very much independence. He wasn't allowed to hang out at his friends' houses or walk to a nearby mall alone.

Experts say that many foster children who grow up in highly structured environments fail to make the crucial transition to living independently at age 18. After they age out of foster care they can end up homeless, jobless or incarcerated.

That isn't how Spiva's story goes, however. Today he works in the aviation industry, and he credits being able to attend Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for his successful transition to adult life.

"The only reason I am successful today is because I was given that time to learn to be an adult," he said.

A state lawmaker wants to help more foster children have access to a college education, giving them a period to transition between their childhood and entering the adult world.

Sen. Adam Driggs, R-Phoenix, authored SB 1208, which would create a five-year pilot program to provide tuition waiver scholarships for current and former foster children at the state's public universities and community colleges.

The Senate Education Committee unanimously endorsed the bill Thursday, forwarding it to the Appropriations Committee.

Driggs said the issue came to his attention through Valley Leadership, the largest leadership development program in the Phoenix metropolitan area. Young adults from the nonprofit organization's Leadership Institute asked him to sponsor the bill.

"They found this issue, they worked really hard on it and really brought this issue along," he told the committee.

According to a 2009 report from the Chapin Hall Center for Children at the University of Chicago, only 20 percent of foster children who graduate with a high school diploma go on to college. The same report estimates only half of foster children graduate from high school by age 18.

Other states including California, Utah, Texas and Florida already offer some amount of free tuition for foster children. Unlike in those states, supporters said SB 1208 would build accountability into Arizona's system by requiring an audit of the program in 2017.

"This is one step we can take to make it a little bit easier for those young people to have a successful adult life," said Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Peoria, a member of the committee who signed on as a primary sponsor.

Spiva and several other former foster children told the committee that aging out of the foster system at 18 doesn't just mean gaining independence for young adults.

"What that really means is you have to leave everything you've known behind - your entire support structure," he said. "So what do you do?"

Even though Spiva was able to get an education, a tuition waiver at a state university could have prevented him from having to take out $300,000 in student loans.

"That continues to be a burden on my life," he said. "Sometimes you just want to be without another burden on your life as you try to make a success of yourself."

Scottsdale resident Paul Blavin, a retired CEO and co-founder of international investment firm Blavin & Co., established the Blavin Scholars Fund in 2006 to help foster children attend college at University of Michigan.

Blavin told the committee investing in young adults' education could also help taxpayers by keeping former foster children from needing assistance through other government programs such as unemployment or welfare.

"Put simply it's the best investment I've ever made - and I made my money investing," he said.

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