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  • Tracy Sherlock

Making the grade: B.C. tuition waiver program made education possible for hundreds of young people

Updated: Sep 14, 2021

Verukah Poirier, who grew up in government care, is now in law school at the University of British Columbia, and raising her two-year-old daughter, Avery.

Photo credit: Submitted.

Verukah Poirier finished her first year of law school at the University of British Columbia in May, a feat she says would not have been possible without a provincial government program that waives tuition fees for students who grew up in government care.

Poirier, 23 and the single mom of a two-year-old daughter named Avery, did so well in her first year that she was awarded a full-ride scholarship of $18,000 to cover her second year.

“My grades must have been okay last year. I’m super lucky,” Poirier said. “I had to work a little harder, but it all paid off in the end.”

What makes her achievement even more impressive is that she grew up in foster care, living with extended family or foster parents at various times. She moved about 15 to 20 times, changing elementary schools four times. She had to fight to stay in the same high school, even while changing homes. As a teenager, she spent time living in a shelter.

By age 17, she was living on her own on a youth agreement, a form of independent living with government financial support. At 19, she aged out of care.

About 850 young people age out of B.C. government care each year, often losing all of the supports they have come to rely on, such as their foster parents, financial support, youth health and mental health care and their social worker.

Because of their insecure upbringing and the abrupt loss of supports, former youth in care experience “higher rates of homelessness, less educational attainment, less attachment to the workforce, lower rates of income and poorer mental health among youth leaving care and transitioning to adulthood as compared to their non-care peers,” says the December 2020 report A Parent’s Duty, released by B.C.’s representative for children and youth.

Has the tuition waiver helped?

But the outcomes for all former youth in care are not dire, as Poirier’s story shows. In 2017, B.C.’s then-new provincial NDP government broadened a tuition waiver program for former youth in care that several universities had initiated at the urging of B.C.’s then-representative for children and youth Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond. The province made the program universal for undergraduate degrees at all 25 public post-secondary institutions in the province.

The tuition waiver program is growing — the province paid $1.2 million in tuition fees in 2017 and expects to fund about $3 million this year — and its scope has been expanded to include trades training, but a plan to open the program up to all ages hasn't yet come into place. To be eligible, applicants must begin their education between the ages of 19 and 26 and have lived in government care for at least two years.

Since 2017, about 1,700 young people who grew up in government care have been able to attend university tuition-free and about $10 million in tuition fees have been waived, but only 17 per cent of B.C. youth who have been in government care make it to post-secondary within three years of high school graduation, compared to 48 per cent of other youth, a December 2020 report by B.C.’s representative for children and youth found.

While in university, the government also provides some income support, through a program called Agreements with Young Adults, that provides up to $15,000 a year for eligible youth ages 19 to 26, who are in school, a life skills program or a rehabilitation program. But less than 10 per cent of B.C. youth who have aged out of care access this program. A recent report by B.C.’s representative for children and youth called for all youth aging out of care to be automatically enrolled until their 27th birthdays.

About 400 students are using the tuition waiver in 2021 and the top three schools in terms of numbers are Vancouver Island University, Douglas College and Camosun College. Every public post-secondary school in the province has had at least one student attend using a tuition waiver in the past four years.

“I am proud that our government has taken a leadership role in helping former youth in care succeed, as a lifelong learner and teacher, I recommend that any jurisdiction looks at innovative ways to meet the needs of its population and provide access to education that will provide people with good jobs and allows them to thrive,” B.C.’s advanced education minister Anne Kang said in an emailed statement. Kang was not made available for an interview for this story.

In fall 2020, B.C. Premier John Horgan gave Kang’s ministry a mandate to expand the program to all former youth in care, regardless of age. This has not yet happened, and many of the university representatives and students interviewed for this story listed this as the number one change they would like to see.

B.C.’s minister of advanced education Anne Kang is proud of the tuition waiver program.

Photo credit: Government of B.C.

In 2013, Vancouver Island University in Nanaimo was the first in B.C. to waive tuition for former youth in care. Photo credit: Tracy Sherlock

Which universities lead the way?

Vancouver Island University started waiving tuition for former youth in care in 2013 and was the first university in the province to do so. The University of British Columbia soon followed. Both of these schools continue to provide their own tuition waiver program for former youth in care who don’t qualify for the provincial tuition waiver, either because they’re too old or didn’t spend two full years in care.

David Forrester, a manager in the office of community partnerships at Vancouver Island University, said the program makes a big difference.

“As we’ve learned at VIU, they’re turning out to be great students and as they complete their studies and go on to start their careers, it’s a very rewarding experience. I believe this program is extremely valuable to give hope and opportunity,” Forrester said.

Students accessing the tuition waiver have made the Dean’s List and many have graduated, he said.

Universities in other provinces and countries that don’t offer such a program are missing out, he said.

“I would highly encourage our partners in education to provide hope and opportunity to those who haven’t been given a fair start. It’s definitely worth exploring,” he said.

VIU offers “wraparound services” for former youth in care, including a full-time person in their financial aid office who specifically works with this population to promote access to education. The university can provide emergency housing or financial support.

“Tuition is just a small part of education. The wraparound services a student needs – in any program, and wherever they come from – is key to making sure a student meets their educational goals,” Forrester said.

UBC also offers extra supports for former youth in care, including priority for on-campus housing, access to emergency funding for food and housing security, and help applying to awards and bursaries. The school also provides support for former youth in care who may have mental health issues or special learning needs.

The UBC admissions policy allows the university to be flexible, as long as a former youth in care student meets the minimum requirements, rather than the competitive average required for most applicants.

“Most of these students don’t need it. Most of the students with lived experience in care are competitive,” said Chris Rambaran, UBC’s enrolment advisor for former youth in care.

What are former youth in care studying?

Many of the students interviewed for this story want to go into the so-called “helping fields,” like social work or medicine, but former youth in care are found in faculties across the spectrum.

They want to make a difference, Rambaran said in an interview.

“They want to impact their communities. They want to make resources more accessible, whether it be health or education. They have this deep sense of purpose,” Rambaran said. “It’s always really humbling for me and inspirational. I have such an honour in crossing paths with them and playing a small role in that journey of theirs.”

Poirier began her post-secondary studies at Langara College, later transferring to UBC. Her achievement in her first year at the Peter Allard School of Law is even more striking when you consider that a few short years ago, only one-third of foster children graduated from high school on time. That number is now up above one-half, but is still far shy of the 85 per cent of all students who graduate.

Like Poirier, children in government care often move many, many times and because of that, they often fall behind in school and graduate at much lower rates than their peers who live with parents.

Without the tuition waiver, which paid for her undergraduate studies, Poirier says she wouldn’t be in law school.

“A tuition waiver does so much more for youth in care than just cover tuition. Having that program in place gave me the confidence and security to even go to school.”

As for the future, Poirier, who is Indigenous, hopes to work in criminal law, specifically to help Indigenous people and work towards more equitable restorative justice programs.

“I think that’s where I’m kind of finding my passion at law school,” she said.

In B.C. Indigenous families are vastly overrepresented in the child welfare system. Due to the history and ongoing effects of colonial policies, Indigenous children make up 65 per cent of children in care in B.C., while just 5.9 per cent of the overall population is Indigenous.

Band funding from the Metis Nation paid for her first year at law school, since the provincial tuition waiver doesn’t cover graduate school. She’s got her second-year tuition covered because of the scholarship she was awarded, but she will have to find a way to pay for her final year of law school.

“We will climb that mountain when we get there,” she said.

Even students at the very beginning of their post-secondary studies, or who can only go to school part-time, see the value in the program.

Raylee Lane, 22, aged out of care while living with her grandmother, who she still lives with. She goes to Douglas College, studying general arts part-time, working towards her Bachelor of Arts. Like many former youth in care, she wants to work in a helping field, either doing community work or child and youth care. She also works part-time for the McCreary Centre Society, a non-profit that works with youth, where she works to build social connections for youth.

Lane didn’t graduate from high school, but was allowed into Douglas College anyway and has successfully finished several classes.

“Part of the reason I didn’t graduate was that I didn’t see the point in it. I didn’t think post-secondary would ever happen,” Lane said.

But she says the tuition waiver program changed her life.

“As a child, I always dreamed about going to university, but as I got older, this dream got further and further out of reach due to trauma and having no money. When I found out I was eligible for the tuition waiver, I couldn't believe it. I am now a student at Douglas College, and I am endlessly grateful for this opportunity and I will never forget it.”

She only wishes more former youth in care could access the program, including former youth in care who were only in care for periods shorter than two years.

This reporting was funded by Journalists for Human Rights and the Solutions Journalism Network and made possible by funding from the McConnell Foundation.

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Jul 09, 2022

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