Ileana Garcia, Nicholas Duran propose expansions to college tuition waiver program

‘Caregivers and the children they take in should not be disadvantaged when they seek opportunities in higher education.’

Sen. Ileana Garcia and Rep. Nicholas Duran of Miami have answered the call of a devoted grandmother and filed bipartisan legislation to expand access to college tuition waivers for students in out-of-home care

The twin bills (SB 304 and HB 203), Garcia said, “correct a missing piece” of the state’s tuition waiver program, which provides fee exemptions to some postsecondary students.

The program is available to students 27 and younger in the state foster care system, living with a nonparent relative or nonrelative by the time they reach 18 or are homeless. It covers tuition and fees, including lab fees, for undergraduate, graduate and professional school classes and workforce education programs provided by school districts.

But currently, only students placed in out-of-home care under specific state statutes or placed before the relative caregiver tuition waiver was enacted are eligible. That excluded the granddaughter of Pamela Dunn, Sabrina, whom Dunn raised with her brothers rather than see them go into foster care.

Dunn said she contacted Senate President Wilton Simpson after learning her granddaughter would not be eligible for the college tuition waiver available to others who stay in foster care.

“I want to make sure other grandparents and relatives who have raised their family members don’t have to face the same logistical hurdles we had when trying to figure out how to pay for college,” Dunn said in a written statement. “We are really grateful to President Simpson, Sen. Garcia and Rep. Duran for advancing this bill that will be a great benefit for families like ours.”

If enacted, Garcia and Duran’s legislation would extend waiver access to students who are now in the custody of a relative or nonrelative, or were at the time they turned 18, regardless of whether the caregivers received foster care room and board rates. It would also allow the tuition waiver to apply to students placed in out-of-home care with a relative guardian regardless of how and when the placement occurred.

“Transitioning from high school to college is a particularly vulnerable time for foster care youth and other children raised in out-of-home care,” said Garcia, a Republican. “The tuition waiver has been an important tool for economic and academic self-sufficiency for youth aging out of foster care, and we want children raised by their relatives to have the same benefit. Dedicated grandparents like Ms. Dunn step up to the plate to raise their grandchildren, keeping them out of the foster care system. Those heroic caregivers and the children they take in should not be disadvantaged when they seek opportunities in higher education.”

Casa Valentina CEO Janice Graham, whose organization helps young adults who exited the state foster care system or were homeless find safe, affordable housing and learn life skills to maintain self-sufficiency, said the legislation “marks a momentous occasion as our state’s most vulnerable population are getting the attention they deserve and the tools to exceed.”

Duran, a Democrat, said his and Garcia’s legislation will provide more youths raised in out-of-home care with a pathway to learn, prepare for future careers and be self-sufficient.

“I am a father of two elementary school children,” he said. “Each child, regardless of their family or economic situation, deserves the opportunity to attend college.”