“I didn’t do this campaign around tuition waivers for (the Ministry of Children and Family Development) to come in and claw it back. This is the wrong thinking,” said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.’s Representative for Children and Youth.
In at least one case, a $1,300 college bursary was awarded to an 18-year-old foster child, but the Ministry of Children and Family Development deducted the same amount from money they were giving the teen to pay for her tuition. The ministry argued the bursary should be used for her tuition, so felt it was appropriate to recoup the money.
But Turpel-Lafond said the whole idea behind convincing post-secondary schools to provide bursaries or waive tuition was to give an extra boost to foster children, who statistically face dire academic, employment and poverty outcomes.
Seven B.C. institutions have stepped up so far, all of them offering youth-in-care funds for this semester. But Turpel-Lafond said she heard from many young people this summer who were awarded a bursary or tuition waiver but faced some sort of bureaucratic roadblock from the ministry.
“This is the type of petty, clawback mentality that is not associated with success. It’s traumatizing. It’s embarrassing. It’s unfortunate,” she said.
“And I expect it to be fixed.”
The 18-year-old student, who cannot be identified because she is a foster child, had hoped the bursary money would help her pay for other expenses that come with expensive post-secondary education.
“The whole point of universities doing this is basically to lessen the load of the financial burden of kids in care. It was not for the ministry to freeload and deduct the money from kids in care,” she said in an interview.
The ministry, however, takes the position that it is acceptable to deduct the $1,300 bursary from what it was planning to pay for her $1,750 first-semester tuition because, as a foster child, her day-to-day shelter and food needs are already being covered. In this case, the ministry has also paid almost $300 toward the cost of her books.
The ministry sent The Sun an email explaining its policies. It declined, however, to provide someone to interview on the optics of this college-funded bursary saving the provincial government money — while leaving the foster child not one cent further ahead.
When the girl’s college announced its youth-in-care assistance program earlier this year, it said bursaries worth $200,000 would be given annually to cover tuition and student fees to help “break down the financial barriers these students face accessing the post-secondary system.”
Turpel-Lafond said it would have been decent to let the teen, who has faced an uphill battle just to reach college, keep the bursary for other expenses, such as tutoring, a healthy meal on campus, or school supplies.
“We are dealing with a small amount of money, like $1,000. Why can she not use that money to deal with some needed self care?”
The Ministry of Children and Family Development offers two programs to help youth older than 19, who have aged out of the foster care system, attend school. But Turpel-Lafond fears the bursaries and tuition waivers could be deducted from those meagre payments as well.
“We’ve seen the risk of that,” she said. “What I’m concerned about is the ministry thinking that their future will be a diminished responsibility to these young people.”
The ministry did not directly respond to questions about whether financial aid from these seven post-secondary institutions would be subtracted from the ministry’s education programs for those over 19.
Instead, it said the bursaries and tuition waivers are “to work in tandem” with existing government support. But it also said such support is based on need, and that factors such as income available to the applicant — including scholarships, grants and bursaries — “may affect final funding assessments.” (The Ministry of Children and Family Development italicized these words in the statement given to The Sun.)
The two programs to help youth after age 19 — when they no longer receive any support from the foster care system — are limited by budget and timelines:
• The Youth Education and Assistance Fund offers four annual bursaries of up to $5,500 for tuition, books, fees or living expenses, while studying at designated schools, up to age 24.
• Agreements with Young Adults funds living expenses for up to 24 months up to age 24 for attending school, learning job skills, or completing rehabilitation. On average, a person receives about $1,000 a month, but the entire program is capped at $5 million annually.
While only a low percentage of foster children complete high school, the 18-year-old interviewed by The Sun has a transcript full of As. She hopes speaking out about what happened to her bursary will prompt change and allow future students to keep the money, regardless of what they are collecting from the government.
“If you look at the stats on foster kids, it’s not that great. A lot don’t graduate, are incarcerated, on drugs,” the girl said. “The number that go to post-secondary is minuscule, so it wouldn’t cost the ministry that much (to let the students keep the bursary money).”
The girl has saved money by renting her textbooks for $300, instead of buying them for $900, but is still worried about being able to afford other expenses while she pursues her full-time course load in sciences.
Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo was the first institution to waive tuition for former foster children in 2013. Since then, six additional post-secondary institutions either waived tuition or offered bursaries to current or former youth in care: the University of Victoria, UBC, SFU, Langara College, BCIT and Nicola Valley Institute of Technology.
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