ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
More than 20,000 youths around the country age out of foster care every year, typically when they turn 18. Many leave with next to nothing - no family, no money, no support. Roughly half drop out of high school. And those who make it to college rarely graduate - less than 3 percent, in fact. But some states, like Michigan, are actively helping former foster kids get through college. Michigan Radio's Jennifer Guerra reports.
JENNIFER GUERRA, BYLINE: In the summer of 2008, Jasmine Uqdah grabbed her duffel bag and two small garbage bags and stuffed everything she owned inside, which wasn't much - some clothes, a few stuffed animals. She said her goodbyes to her foster family in Detroit and moved out.
JASMINE UQDAH: It was pretty scary, to be honest.
GUERRA: Growing up, it was just her and her mom. Her dad died when she was 4. Uqdah wouldn't go into detail except to say that life with her mom wasn't great. And she was eventually removed and placed in foster care. She had spent nearly half her life in the system by the time she aged out.
UQDAH: Every 18 and 19-year-old thinks they're ready (laughter). But you're not. You're not ready for shutoff notices. You're not ready for eviction notices. You're not ready for car repossessions.
GUERRA: Uqdah is easy to talk to. She seems to make friends pretty easily. It's a good thing, too, considering how many times she's had to start over. The one constant in her life is this pillow she's had since she was a teenager. It's shaped like Mickey Mouse. She likes how his ears stick out just like hers. Having it with her made moving a little easier. And she's moved a lot - 15 different schools, 24 different foster homes.
Let's do a little checklist here. When you aged out at 19, did you have a job?
UQDAH: When I first aged out, no.
GUERRA: Did you have a checking account?
GUERRA: So I'm guessing you didn't have a savings account either?
GUERRA: Did you have a car?
UQDAH: No. I didn't even know how to properly fill my refrigerator, honestly (laughter). I had like 10 boxes of cereal and one gallon of milk (laughter) and some Hot Pockets (laughter).
GUERRA: In addition to the Hot Pockets, Jasmine Uqdah also had a college acceptance letter to Wayne State University in Detroit. What she didn't have was money to pay for it. Now, this was back in 2008. There were some scholarships specifically for foster youth but not a lot. The only thing Uqdah qualified for was a $2,500 federal Pell grant. The rest she had to take out in loans.
UQDAH: It's pretty difficult to stay focused on your education when you have to worry about a lot of other life issues, like having somewhere to stay, having food to eat and just the general support for motivation to stay in school.
GUERRA: She had your typical freshman schedule - math, English comp, world history. But it was harder than she thought, and she wasn't used to having the big lecture hall classes with a couple hundred students. Trying to balance school and a part time job and money and life on her own - it was just too stressful. So she dropped out after two semesters with more than $15,000 in debt and took a second job as a meat slicer at a Detroit market. But she never stopped dreaming about college. A couple years ago, she decided to re-enroll. This time, she's at a community college.
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GUERRA: The big difference this time around? It's all free. Jasmine Uqdah doesn't have to pay a thing. See, over the last few years, there's been this nationwide push to get more foster youth to college. And now Michigan, in conjunction with its colleges and universities, is among a growing list of states to offer what is essentially a full ride - or close to it - for youth who have aged out of the system.
MADDY DAY: I think that what's happening in Michigan is really very exciting.
GUERRA: Maddy Day works for something called Fostering Success Michigan, an initiative of Western Michigan University. The goal is to help every foster youth in the state get into college and keep them on track to graduate. She says in order to succeed, these young people need more.
DAY: They need the people on campuses who can walk them through those challenges of I don't know what I'm going to major in. You know, where do I live? How do I navigate peer relationships?
GUERRA: Maddy Day says the most successful programs provide year-round housing, a way to connect with other former foster youth and campus coaches who are on call 24 hours a day to help. There are some schools across the country that offer all of that. And they have a pretty good track record in terms of improving graduation rates for former foster youth. The jury's still out, though, on whether tuition assistance alone is enough. Jasmine Uqdah thinks it is.
UQDAH: Now that I have my tuition paid for, I have no excuse whatsoever not to turn in any assignment.
GUERRA: She has her books, her supplies, and she's on track to get her associates degree this winter. She then hopes to enroll at the University of Michigan in Flint to get her bachelors in social work.
UQDAH: And it's just a great feeling to know you're not five steps backwards from the class. Like, you're right there. So if you feel - that's on you because you have no excuses at this point in time.
GUERRA: OK, she's being pretty hard on herself. Jasmine Uqdah has had more bad things happen to her than many of us will experience in our lifetimes. But now, at least, she has a real shot at success. For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Guerra.
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