Fostering Independence Through Education

LUZERNE COUNTY, Pa. -- Most colleges and universities in the area are back in session, and by this time next year, a new law in Pennsylvania will go into effect that will waive the tuition for kids in foster care.

In late June, Governor Tom Wolf signed into law the Fostering Independence through Education Waiver.

It will allow kids in foster care to attend any college or university in the state tuition-free.

Brandon's Forever Home isn't a home that people actually live in, but it's a place that supports anyone in Pennsylvania that's ever been in the foster care system.

"You can come from a different place, anywhere in the state of Pennsylvania, and get help here at Brandon's Forever Home. We're hoping that other communities decide to copy this model and grow it and move it forward," said State Rep. Tarah Toohil, 116th District. Toohil is also the co-founder of Brandon's Forever Home. Brandon was her brother, a foster kid.

At the home on North Church Street in Hazleton, pictures on the wall encourage foster kids using these services to dream big.

"These kids, when they have such barriers, college is just a dream that really never comes true," Rep. Toohil said. She has dedicated to her career to changing the laws for kids in the foster care system.

And of those who do make it to college, reports show only about 14 percent actually graduate. However, a new state law will waive the tuition for anyone in the foster care system for all Pennsylvania colleges and universities, public and private.

"We are designed to support the state and all students that live within it, so this is an excellent opportunity for our state to help kids who most need it," said Allen Koehler, Penn State Hazleton.

Some colleges in Pennsylvania already have programs that support kids in foster care. At Penn State, it's called the Fostering Lions program.

"We have students from all 20 commonwealth campuses that are represented in the Fostering Lions program."

Students will have to get accepted to the school first. They will also be required to use all available financial aid such as grants and scholarships, then the school will waive the remaining balance of the tuition fee. The waivers, however, do not include room and board.

"So important if you're homeless, the housing and the food is the biggest part. You need something to eat and you need somewhere to sleep if you're going to succeed. So this bill is progress but going forward, I'm pushing that it will include housing and food," Rep. Toohil added.

The new law goes into effect for the fall 2020 semester. The Pennsylvania Department of Education is currently working on guidelines on how students can apply for the tuition waiver. However, the child must be in the foster care system on their 16th birthday to be eligible.

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