Tuition waivers help dozens of former foster kids attend B.C. universities

Jess Boon has big plans.

The 24-year-old, first-year University of B.C. student wants to become a child advocate, pushing for better lives for youth in government care.

She has come a long way since she was placed in government care at the age of 14. She attended five high schools, and didn’t graduate on time. After she turned 19 and was cut off from foster care, she struggled financially and developed post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of the circumstances that put her in care and what she saw once she was in the system.

“It was a tumultuous time, and for six to eight months I was not coping well,” she said, adding that she had flashbacks, cried a lot and felt “immensely lost.”

Eventually, she started volunteering with the Federation of B.C. Youth in Care Networks, a support and advocacy network for youth in and from foster care. She said that connection was a huge turning point, both personally and professionally, because she found she had something to offer. She finished high school and got a two-year counselling certificate, as well as working for the federation as a youth worker.

Now Boon is at UBC, one of 17 former foster children who are attending the university for free, thanks to a tuition waiver program begun this year. The program was in response to a challenge by B.C.’s children’s advocate, Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, who urged post-secondary institutions to waive tuition for former foster children, who often struggle with homelessness and other challenges after leaving government care when they turn 19.

UBC and six other post-secondary schools are now offering free tuition to former foster children in B.C.

“The big push for me, for going to university, is that I want to do something great,” Boon said. “Before the tuition waiver program, these things didn’t seem possible. It’s definitely opening up a huge opportunity for me, and I think it is a symbol of hope for our community. It’s the first time for us to really pursue our dreams.”

Her dream is to one day be an advocate for children’s rights like Turpel-Lafond or activist Cindy Blackstock, who is executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada.

“They are probably the most influential child advocates in the country,” Boon said. “I don’t think anybody is pushing as hard as they are.”

The new tuition waiver program has brought students into a wide range of programs, from education, to First Nations studies, to honours physics and engineering, said UBC registrar Kate Ross, associate vice-president of enrolment services.

“The program far exceeded our expectations for this year, with 11 students in Vancouver and six at the Okanagan campus,” Ross said. “I would hope we would see that number grow next year. It probably could double.”

Applicants for the tuition waiver must have started post-secondary education within five years of being in care, and enrol in their first undergraduate degree at UBC within five years. This timeline gives students until about the age of 30 to finish their degree, Ross said.

“It’s part of doing the right thing in making education accessible,” Ross said. “Post-secondary education is an equalizer, so an institution like UBC should be doing everything we can to support members of the population within British Columbia who are bright and motivated, but who don’t have the same advantages as others.

“I see the value of education and how it can change someone’s life.”

In addition, the student societies at UBC also waived some of their fees and the university’s extended health and dental insurance premiums are waived for former foster children, Ross said.

“We have enrolment service professionals who have one-on-one relationships with these students. They’re providing them with help to navigate the system,” Ross said. “We will be very closely looking at how these students do and ensuring that we’re supporting them in any way that we can.”

Two years ago, Turpel-Lafond urged post-secondary institutions to waive tuition for former foster children, who often struggle with homelessness and other challenges after leaving government care when they turn 19. She has also called for the provincial government to extend foster care beyond age 19.

But the province has maintained that is not necessary because 19-year-olds can access social assistance services offered to adults, even though officials admit it is a convoluted system that is difficult to navigate for vulnerable youth.

Vancouver Island University was the first to introduce the tuition waiver as a pilot project in 2013. Since then, six additional post-secondary institutions have either waived tuition or are offering bursaries to current or former youth in care: UBC, the University of Victoria, SFU, Langara College, BCIT and Nicola Valley Institute of Technology.

At Vancouver Island University, 38 students have had their tuition waived this term. As well, VIU supplemented the tuition waiver with a $500 award to each student to help cover other expenses, said Dan Hurley, executive director of university relations. A peer mentoring program is in the works, and each student has access to both an education counsellor and one-on-one support from the university’s manager of financial aid. Hurley says the students are doing really well and they are able to accelerate their education because of the free tuition.

The Ministry of Children and Family Development offers two programs to help youth older than 19, who have aged out of the foster care system, attend school. But both of those programs, the Youth Education and Assistance Fund and Agreements with Young Adults, are limited by budgets and timelines.

The Sun reported earlier this fall that in some cases, the province may claw back the equivalent amount of the tuition waiver from other support funding it gives these vulnerable youth. But neither UBC nor VIU has heard of any of their students facing a clawback.

In Ontario, where foster care has been extended to age 21, all universities and one-third of colleges offer free tuition for up to four years to youth leaving government care. In addition, the province provides $500 a month in living expenses up to age 25 for those enrolled in post-secondary education or training.

There has been growing recognition in recent months that more needs to be done to help youth after foster care ends at 19.

In July, the City of Vancouver listed “youth aging out of foster care” as one of the top groups driving the increasing number of homeless people.

And earlier this month, the provincial government announced a new Homeless Prevention Program and, again, listed “youth transitioning out of foster care” first among the group of people it will assist.

The program offers temporary monthly rent supplements and workers will connect participants with other services in the community, Craig Crawford, B.C. Housing’s vice-president of operations, said in an email to The Sun.

The $62.5-million, five-year program is funded through a provincial-federal affordable housing initiative. Crawford could not say what portion of this budget will be spent supporting youth leaving foster care.

Former youth in care who qualify for the program will be identified by non-profit agencies, outreach workers and government staff in ministries such as corrections and health, he said.

The Homeless Prevention Program is currently only available in six cities, but the government hopes to eventually have it running in 30 communities across B.C.

To view the article in the Vancouver Sun click here

2 Responses to “Tuition waivers help dozens of former foster kids attend B.C. universities”

  1. Krista

    Hello Annie: Unfortunately we don’t have the answer to your question, but you can contact them toll free at: 1-877-272-1422.
    We did recently find out that the Children’s Aid Foundation offers scholarships and bursaries to foster children across Canada.
    We are in the process of adding this information to our tuition guide, but you can view the information on their website at:

  2. Annie

    I was wondering if UBC’s tuition waivers were for foster children across the country or only for foster children living in BC.

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