VIU tuition waiver program targets youth in care

NANAIMO – Vancouver Island University announced a new Youth in Care Tuition Waiver Program to increase access to post-secondary education.

Advocates applaud Vancouver Island University’s new tuition waiver program for youth in care, calling it a light at the end of the tunnel for students struggling to stay in school.

Vancouver Island University recently announced it will pay full tuition for students raised in government care, beginning this September. The initiative is the first of its kind in B.C. and aims to help more students in the foster care system access higher education.

The province’s children’s advocate challenged universities and colleges to waive tuition for government wards earlier this year and says VIU’s response is an important step toward improving the education system for youth in care. Government wards are challenged to complete high school, with experiences of abuse, trauma and frequent moves between foster homes and schools, said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C. representative for children and youth.

In the Nanaimo school district, the average ward transfers schools seven times before the age of 18. Until now, there has been no reward for students who persevere through high school and those that do get the requirements for post-secondary face the challenge of affording tuition, she said.

With new tuition waivers, Turpel-Lafond and other advocates hope more children will be inspired to stay in school and take advantage of opportunities to enter post-secondary.

Studies have shown that even with some tuition money available to youth in care, they are 50 per cent more likely to get a post-secondary education.

Currently half of the young people who leave government care at 19 years end up on welfare and advocates say post-secondary could lead to greater participation in the labour force and higher standards of living.

But they also say there is still work to be done to qualify students for VIU’s new Youth in Care Tuition Waiver Program. The university reports less than four of the region’s students in care are eligible to enter post-secondary school each year.

“We have to do a better job of preparing our kids for post-secondary when they are in care,” said William Yoachim, executive director of Kw’umut Lelum Child and Family Services.  “We are not doing a good enough job yet.”

B.C. youth in care are lagging behind their counterparts in the education system, according to provincial statistics.

Forty per cent of students in care graduated in 2010-11 compared to 80 per cent of other students.

A 2007 report on the educational experiences of children and youth in care, also found that just seven per cent of children in care were eligible for an academic GPA, compared to 39 per cent of the general student population.

The VIU program is “essential” and could give mentors the right tools to encourage students to not give up if they are struggling in school, Turpel-Lafond said.

The school district has taken steps in the last two years to better track its 132 students in care and assign mentors – but the B.C. advocate for children said there needs to be a greater, collaborative effort to ensure more students are eligible for university.

To get the tuition waiver students must be 18 years old or turning 18 in the 2013-14 academic year, demonstrate financial need and have a recommendation from a child and family services agency.