What Financial Aid REALLY Feels Like: A Former Foster Student’s Experience

May was National Foster Care Month, and CEO Gregg Scoresby, an active member of the foster care community here in Arizona, sat down with me to talk about the unique challenges former foster kids face throughout their higher-education journey. We also talked about ideas for better supporting this at-risk population—fewer than three percent of kids in foster care graduate from a four-year college by age 26.

That blog post hit very close to home for our Regional Director Edmundo Saavedra. A Phoenix native, Edmundo joined CampusLogic in 2017, after nearly a decade spent working with First Generation students in higher education. “If you ever want to know what navigating the financial aid journey is like from a foster kid’s point-of-view, just let me know,” he said. “I was in the system since the age of eight, and if there’s anything I can do to help make things better I’m all-in.”

I’m humbled and honored to work with people like Edmundo who are so very willing to share their personal stories to help make the world a better place. Read on for a very personal look into the challenges foster children face with everything from feeling accepted by higher education, to finding information on how to fund it—all while worrying about how to pay your rent at age 16.

Amy: Thanks for sharing your story with us, Edmundo. You have a very unique perspective on a lot of the topics Gregg and I spoke about last month.

Edmundo: Happy to talk, Amy. Part of why I work here is because of the passion and focus on transforming lives through higher education—seeing you and Gregg discuss something so close to my heart was really amazing.

Amy: Where does your story begin? 

Edmundo: Here in Arizona. I was born and raised here, along with my four siblings. As the oldest, my instinct was always to ensure my family were safe and provided for. It wasn’t the most stable home situation, and it disintegrated even more when our mom left. My father tried really hard to keep us all together, but it fell apart. We were in and out of the foster care system a few times in the years after mom left, but it wasn’t until I was eight years old that we officially became wards of the court. We all ended up placed with different foster families.

Amy: I can only imagine what a huge adjustment you all had to make in that scenario. Were you able to stay in the same school though, or did you have to switch based on your placement?

Edmundo: It was a huge adjustment, emotionally, physically, academically—we were all split up. During my eight years in the system I was transferred to 12 different foster homes and attended six different schools. In your earlier piece with Gregg you talked about how foster kids are two times as likely to be absent from school than other kids, and that we lose four to six months of academic progress each time a school change occurs. I can absolutely vouch for that. Those transitions are difficult. Every time one happened, I missed weeks of class—not because of truancy. You’d have to go to the new school, usually spent time in whatever they had as a ‘Welcome Room’ for new students, and then would integrate into your new classroom where they probably were learning something different lesson-wise than your old school was.

I remember getting into a lot of fights, being disruptive. But when you’re a kid whose whole world has been disrupted, and you’re trying to navigate it on your own—feeling like people are looking at you like you don’t fit in—it’s not hard to understand the bad behavior. And I wasn’t the only one. There were a lot of transient kids in my neighborhood and behavior issues were prominent. Think about it… if you take a whole group of kids who are constantly in survival mode—constantly being forced into a fight-or-flight mindset—and put them in a room together, it’s bound to cause turbulence. We spent a lot of time switching between the Welcome Room and the Detention Center.

Amy: How did all of that turbulence affect your academic standing? Did you ever have to repeat a grade?

Edmundo: Luckily I was smart and able to keep up academically, but every semester felt like a sprint. What other kids were able to learn and accomplish in five months, I had to accomplish in two or three. And had to do it not knowing where my siblings were, worried about if I’d be switched to a new foster home in the next few weeks, just worried about basic survival.

Amy: From the time you’ve spent here, I know you as a motivated, hard-working man who really cares about his colleagues and customers. How did you keep that motivational mindset when the odds felt stacked against you?

Edmundo: My dad motivated me, in his own way, to understand how important education would be to changing my circumstances. Since I was about age five, he took me to construction sites to work with him. And he’d say ‘If you don’t want to do this kind of work, you need to finish high school. Dad made sure I understood that if I had aspirations, a diploma was my ticket there. My dad had a difficult upbringing, so even a high school diploma often felt unattainable, let alone a college degree. I may have fallen into the same cycle had it not been for one of my teachers.

Amy: This is the teacher who helped you get a full scholarship?

Edmundo: Yes, exactly. In middle school, a teachers saw potential, went to bat for me and got me a full scholarship to Brophy College Preparatory, a private academy in central Phoenix. As long as I maintained my grades and stayed out of trouble, my tuition would be covered. It changed the trajectory of my life.

Amy: From foster care to Brophy must have felt like navigating a whole new world.

Edmundo: It was—and it was the first time I saw the kinds of opportunities that exist for people after high school. Brophy’s curriculum was rigorous because college was the obvious next step for all Brophy grads. That certainly hadn’t been the case at my public school, where only about 20% of students went on to earn a college degree. At Brophy, I knew that I wanted to keep going with my education past high school. But a lot of the time it was a struggle, and college could certainly feel out of reach.

Amy: Because of the academic competition from other students?

Edmundo: No, not really. More so that Brophy’s affluent environment brought its own set of challenges. The kids I went to school with drove BMWs and Ferraris. At the end of the day, they drove north and I took the bus south. Friends I had at Brophy, their parents simply planned to write a check to cover the four-year college tab up-front. Even though we sat in the same classroom, we lived in very different worlds. I’d often think, ‘That lifestyle and those opportunities would never be available to me, so why bother?’ And I’d also think ‘Rather than going to college, if I drop out and work full-time I can try to find my siblings and get us back together.’

Amy: Those are some pretty weighty thoughts for a teenager to be dealing with. Why did you choose emancipation?

Edmundo: I needed a better home situation, one that was stable. Thanks to the support system at Brophy, I was able to make a solid case for emancipation. It took months to get through the emancipation process. One example: I had no way to locate my social security card or birth certificate, so I took the bus back and forth to the social security office. It took me six months to replace the documents I needed. Things like no home address, inconsistent records, the money to pay something that seems as small as an $8 fee… it all adds up.

When it’s done, it’s not like there’s an emancipation agency that comes and helps you figure out how to find low-income housing, or file your taxes. You’re just suddenly a grown up, on your own, at 16. With a world ahead of you, and not a lot of answers. I went to school during the week, worked weekends in construction as an English/Spanish translator on job sites, and tried to figure out what to do next.

Amy: In all honesty, what were your 3 biggest concerns every day?

Edmundo: What I was going to eat, whether I could make rent, and if my siblings were okay.

Amy: Basic needs for survival were your biggest concerns. Filling out the FAFSA, or searching for the right fit for higher education likely fell far down on your to-do list. 

Edmundo: They certainly weren’t tops on the list, but thanks to my Brophy education I was pretty much guaranteed I could attend one of the top three universities in Arizona. I actually received a full-ride scholarship to Notre Dame to play soccer, but I turned it down so I could stay in Phoenix and try to find my siblings, at least be close to them.

In high school, I had no idea what a Pell grant was. I did know that I needed to fill out a FAFSA, but I didn’t know where to get it. When I finally got one, it was a printed copy and I had no idea how to fill it out. I couldn’t answer a lot of the questions about my parents, or my housing… I got overwhelmed pretty quick and gave up. Meaning I gave up on the Financial Aid option, but I didn’t give up on higher education.

Amy: You turned down a full-ride scholarship, where did you end up going to school? And did people point you toward financial aid options you definitely qualified for as an emancipated student?

Edmundo: The financial aid conversation was a gap at Brophy, mainly because 99% of their students never need to have that conversation. When I went to Arizona State University, I didn’t know I qualified for financial aid so I took out private loans because I had good credit. My hope is that we encourage change in the foster care system so that financial aid conversations, and conversations around the importance of higher education for changing your life happen earlier, more frequently, more deliberately, in Junior High or even elementary school. Had I been more informed, I would have tried harder to keep up my GPA in order to qualify for more scholarships or other types of aid.

Amy: You funded your entire education on personal loans, didn’t you?

Edmundo: I did, mainly because everything about the financial aid process was so confusing—and asked me to provide information I just didn’t have. As a sophomore I spoke to the aid office, and they gave me access to more loans. I took them, because I could pocket the difference to help me pay rent. In my junior year I volunteered at Maggie’s Place, and a youth counselor told me I qualified for grants. I went back to the ASU FinAid office and asked for the forms for students who had been wards of the court. They found them for me—they had to search—but those forms asked me to provide information about my parents’ whereabouts, which I had no way of answering. So I just gave up.

Amy: That’s really frustrating. Schools are no longer required to ask for supporting documentation to prove you were a ward of the court, yet 50% of schools still do. It’s an unnecessary burden on students who already have to fight harder for admittance.  

Edmundo: It’s insane, I agree.  Ninety percent of the kids who go through the system don’t have any support—trust me, of all the ones I went through the system with, a lot didn’t make it and ended up on the streets or in jail. They’re completely on their own. Over-verification is keeping kids who were in foster care away from the aid they need. To be denied this small form of restitution feels deplorable. 

Amy: Children of foster care children often end up wards of the court themselves. Education is crucial to breaking that cycle. How do you suggest the system needs to change so that aid is allocated to the people who need it most?

Edmundo: Education was the best thing that ever happened to me. It did so much more than give me a job, it gave me a world of opportunities, and people don’t realize how key that is to kids in the system. We should find any way we can to simplify the process for these students. Creating more barriers just exacerbates the cycle. And when you consider how much aid goes unused, doesn’t it make sense to help them get the aid they need, without all the additional red tape?

Schools talk about increasing their low-income, first-generation student populations, but what programs are they truly implementing? Are they doing outreach to current and former students in foster care in high schools in their area? Are they making communications bilingual? Are they creating resources that are easy to understand—and easy to find? This is the greatest at-risk population. I really feel the foster care agencies that get paid to support these kids should be measured on metrics that include presenting higher education resources, hosting workshops, and coaching foster youth throughout the higher ed journey.

Amy: Have you seen an institution that seems to do this well?

Edmundo: I haven’t, but that does not mean it is not happening nor is it the fault of the financial aid offices. Just like the students they serve, they’re really trying keep their heads above water. Constantly forced to do more with less, a lot of aid offices don’t have the capacity to have high impact one-to-one conversations with students like they would like to.

One of the reasons I chose to work at CampusLogic is our company’s purpose: We help schools change lives. Education not only improves the life of a student, but can also impact their entire family, and community at-large. More opportunities mean a better future, for all of us. Providing opportunities for at-risk students is also why I sponsor a foster kid at Brophy every year, so they have one less stress in their day.

Amy: I think your positive attitude is really infectious. You give back, you volunteer, you advocate. You could have taken a very different path or attitude through your journey.

Edmundo: No one gets through life without a few scrapes, but I believe that where we end up is within our control. While I couldn’t choose which experiences happened to me, I could definitely choose whether those experiences would make me better, or make me bitter.

Amy: You chose better.

Edmundo: I’ll always choose better. I’d be lying if I said it was always easy, but it was always the right choice.

Amy: Seems like you and Gregg have some great ideas about how we can better support foster kids. Now we just need to get you two together to make them a reality.

Edmundo: Agreed. I’m excited that CampusLogic has advocated for the foster care community. And I think the future looks bright for developing some new resources to help accessing and completing higher education easier for at-risk students.

Read Part 1 of the Series >

About the Author

Amy Glynn, VP Student Financial Success

Amy Glynn joined CampusLogic in 2013, focused on helping colleges and universities deliver student financial success through automation, advising, and analytics. Ever-focused on improving staff efficiency and the student experience, Amy has spent more than a decade optimizing the financial aid process while ensuring institutions maintained compliance with Federal Title IV regulations. A sought-after national-stage speaker, Amy champions ideas that can help turn the tide for the nearly 3 million students who drop out of higher education every year for reasons related to finances. Student financial success has become a strategic imperative for all higher education institutions and Amy often lends her voice to policy discussions focused on improving accessibility, driving informed borrowing, and increasing completion. Amy earned her Master of Science in Higher Education from Walden University.

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