It goes without saying that to fuel the state’s economy, Maine needs more of its young people to graduate from college. Less well known is the small but consequential population who age out of the state’s foster care system every year, most of whom have no hope of ever obtaining a college degree.

Despite their impressive levels of resilience and motivation, without the support of stable family environments, the odds are stacked against young people raised in foster care.

In fact, fewer than half of them graduate from high school; of those who do, just 2 percent earn four-year college degrees. Most are first-generation college students from low-income backgrounds and tend to have other struggles and responsibilities that make completing college an even bigger challenge than it already is.

Juggling work and school, securing housing, balancing family responsibilities and affording books – coupled with a lack of both financial and emotional support to help them navigate the rocky transition into adulthood – are just some of the barriers foster kids face. For those who take the leap and enter college, actually completing a degree is slower and, all too often, impossible.

Maine, like many other states, has worked to support young people ages 18 to 21 who are aging out of foster care without a permanent home by providing continued financial support in the form of a Voluntary Extended Care Agreement, or “V-9.” These funds help pay for housing and college expenses not covered by financial aid.

The problem is that V-9 agreements currently end at age 21. Even young people raised in stable homes are rarely through college at age 21. For youth aging out of foster care – many of whom are in need of remedial coursework because they have moved often during their school career – finishing college by the age of 21 is almost unheard-of. Many of these students are not able to continue their education when the V-9 funding ends.

Fortunately, some thoughtful legislators in Augusta have taken notice. L.D. 1683, An Act to Improve Degree and Career Attainment for Former Foster Care Children, is a bipartisan bill that would extend V-9 funding through age 26 for an annual cohort of 40 students who have aged out of foster care and enrolled in a post-secondary education or training program.

Sponsored by House Majority Leader Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, the bill would allow the state to continue to support these youth with some funding for the necessary costs of housing and food, giving them a chance to complete their education and earn a livable wage.

If enacted, this policy change would not only provide a helping hand to some of our most vulnerable young Maine citizens, but it would save the state significant money over time.

Each year, an average of 27 Maine young people become ineligible for continued V-9 funding at age 21. A report by the Jim Casey Youth Opportunity Initiative calculated that when these young people do not succeed in their adult lives, they cost Maine $8.2 million every year on criminal justice, early pregnancy and poor educational outcomes – that’s about $300,000 per youth.

On top of that, data show that many young adults who age out of foster care without post-secondary education become homeless, and experience unemployment and long-term dependency on public assistance.

While such long-term savings are readily evident, the short-term cost also is a bargain. Maine and national philanthropic foundations also stepping up to the plate, meaning there is now in place a true public-private partnership that would cost taxpayers only $25,000 next year.

At Good Will-Hinckley, we recently established a program called College Step-Up aimed at supporting college completion among youth aging out of Maine’s foster care system.

The program provides year-round apartment-style housing, transportation to Kennebec Valley Community College, support for improving life and study skills, help finding employment and guidance building and maintaining lifelong connections with supportive adults.

Ours is but one small but important program helping these resilient young people to have the chance that many take for granted.

These students already have overcome seemingly insurmountable odds to graduate from high school and gain acceptance to college. While matching their grit and determination may be impossible, with a “yes” vote to fund this bill, legislators in Augusta have the chance to recognize how far they’ve come, express how much we value their role in our state’s future and give them a little extra time to become truly independent.

— Special to the Press Herald