How the Student Loan Crisis Is Affecting Foster Youth

Last year, I watched a citizen ask President Joe Biden to cancel $50K in student loan debt during a town hall meeting. She stated how borrowers like herself and her family are desperately struggling before kindly asking him. He shut her down. “I will not make that happen,” Biden said almost vehemently.  

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Youth Voice writer Sky Lea Ross. Courtesy of Brittany Anderson.

He went on to say that he was willing to knock out $10K for borrowers, and that during the COVID-19 pandemic, interest accrual on outstanding balances has halted. But for students like myself who are former foster youth, $10K is a joke. It wouldn’t even make a dent.  

It’s not news that there is a current student debt crisis in this country. There are countless news stories about senior citizens having to pay off their loans while living in retirement homes and nursing facilities. Some have garnished funds from their Social Security checks to pay their outstanding balances. It’s a nightmare. As a former foster youth who owes close to $350K in debt (and counting), I don’t want this to happen to me.  

When we talk about what college students go through, we’re commonly referring to the typical American. These individuals probably come from a nuclear family and have financial support from their parents or relatives. We hardly ever think about how these issues affect former foster youth.  

Statistics show that only 50% of former foster youth go on to graduate from high school, and less than 10% actually go on to graduate with a degree from a four-year college/university. The numbers are grim compared to the national averages. But those of us who beat the odds and make it to graduate school exist, even though there are very limited resources supporting us. 

My outstanding student loan debt is on top of all of the resources I’ve exhausted. I was very fortunate to attend UCLA with a full ride, only paying out of pocket for a study abroad trip to New York (my very first time on a plane) and taking a summer class one year. But, even those expenses were necessary. For former foster youth who attend college, if the campus closes during breaks, many of us don’t have a home to go back to. All of the other students who live locally can simply go stay with their families for the holidays or for the duration of the break, but anyone who lives out of state, internationally, or is a former foster youth doesn’t necessarily have that option. So I had to take that summer trip abroad and study Spanish one year because I had to secure housing, or else I would have to couch surf.  

Going onto grad school is an entirely different story. Many of the UCs and Cal States have Guardian Scholars programs, which serve to support former foster youth pursuing higher education. The Bruin Guardian Scholars program at UCLA helped me greatly. But once you go  into a graduate setting at smaller schools (private, nonprofit, etc.), these types of programs don’t exist. So where’s the help, then?  

I applied for every grant and scholarship that I qualified for and was lucky enough to get many. My master’s program at Pacific Oaks College had donor scholarships they offered to continuing students regularly. I was able to connect with organizations like Friends of Foster Children and The Biddy Mason Foundation, who serve former foster youth directly. I’ve been incredibly grateful for their help. But it seems like no matter how much assistance I acquire, it’s never enough.  

Being a former foster youth means I’ve faced my own series of traumas. Trauma has effects that are long-lasting. Over the years, I developed chronic mental and physical health conditions that required treatment, surgery, and therapy. These presented a new set of obstacles I had to face, on top of the lack of financial and familial support.  

So, even though I had a bachelor’s of arts degree from one of the most prestigious schools in the nation and had a master’s of arts degree in Marriage and Family Therapy, my “invisible” disabilities made it difficult to work. Most millennials know how hard it is to find jobs with livable wages in today’s America. You conjure up enough blood, sweat, and tears to get an education, and even with an advanced degree, entry-level positions are hard to come by. There’s such a high demand for them, and in specialized fields like my own, you’re expected to do an unpaid practicum before graduating with your master’s degree. Even as an associate therapist with a degree, if you live with chronic health issues like I do, full-time work is impossible with constant doctor’s visits and specialty care.  

I was able to land an amazing part-time job with a nonprofit organization I absolutely love, but it took two years of unpaid labor and recuperating from several health complications to do so. They have been incredibly accommodating and flexible, but most positions aren’t. 

Being a former foster youth means I’ve had to work much harder for an education than the average American. I’m passionate about giving back to my community, and this mountain of student debt feels like I’m being punished for it.  

Many of the resources that exist to combat the discrepancy between former foster youth and the general population have age limits. A large majority of the funding available is for high school and college students only who are within the ages of 16 to 24. As you continue to get older, it feels like doors start to shut in your face one by one, like you’re traveling blindly through an eerie funhouse maze of lost opportunity.  

I’m just now learning about the Department of Rehabilitation providing tuition funding to  transitional-age youth between the ages of 16 to 21 if they have a documented mental health condition or physical disability. I was diagnosed with my first mental health condition at 16,  shortly after I entered into foster care, and my second one at 20. But, now it’s several years later and I’m way past that. Where was that support when I needed it? It feels like it’s too late for me now.  

Heck, I had even tried applying for the Gates Millennium Scholarship (GMS) when I was in high school. Recipients may be eligible to have 10 years of education, both undergraduate and graduate levels, fully covered, including the costs of tuition, room & board, textbooks/school supplies, etc. But unfortunately, one of my teachers was late on submitting her recommendation, which meant I wasn’t even considered. I had spent the time writing the 10 essays they required and having a teacher who was very proud of me submit his recommendation on time, only to be disqualified by the error of my other recommender. I was fully qualified to receive it, as a mixed-race, Black student of color and former foster youth from a lower socioeconomic standing. Perhaps, I wouldn’t have this seemingly insurmountable student loan debt if I had been awarded this early on. But that chance is long gone because GMS stopped accepting new students in 2016.  

We need to close the gaps and remove the barriers for former foster youth who wish to pursue higher education. The data on us seems to be scarce or nonexistent, but we exist. I’ve defeated many odds and am currently a doctoral candidate. I’m proud to be able to help others, but I hope I don’t get buried in a pile of debt for the rest of my life.  

And yes, there are loan repayment plans out there and forgiveness programs in place. But those offers are not promised. They’re not mandated, and in the current political climate, they seem risky. I fear that they may be taken away or made harder to access.  

Please, don’t punish the few of us who make it. We’re fighting so hard for our communities, and we will never stop, but it feels like we’re being penalized for even trying.  

We need to mobilize, organize, and pass legislation that will cancel student loan debt for good. It’s for the benefit of us all.

About the Author

Sky Lea Ross

Sky Lea Ross is a doctoral candidate, trauma therapist, published author, and social justice/human rights advocate. Born and raised in the poorer parts of Northern Pasadena, Sky had to navigate the resources available to her at a very young age. Having a family history of chronic mental & physical health conditions as well as disabilities, she was exposed to abuse/neglect & went into foster care at age 16. This opened more doors for her, introduced her to a loving & supportive foster mother, & allowed her to pursue higher education at UCLA, Pacific Oaks College, and The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Inspired by her early experiences with her own personal therapists, she became passionate about the field & determined to give back. Ross is currently working on her dissertation which focuses on exploring the health outcomes of early trauma on ethnic minorities (BIPOC), former foster youth, and the LGBTQIA+ population. She has dedicated her life to serving these marginalized communities, providing therapy, & educating others on the importance of mental health.

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