There are more than 50,000 children living in foster care in Canada and the number continues to grow year every year. But it doesn’t take into account the number of youth living in government care facilities such a group homes or other forms of residential care.
Many youth in care experience multiple forms of disadvantage due to poverty, racism, sexism and the legacies of colonialism: Indigenous people are over-represented with 52 per cent of children in the foster care system identifying as Indigenous.
Finances are not the only barrier to post-secondary studies faced by people raised in care, but are a significant one. Tuition waiver programs are an ethical and urgent social response to help create positive health and social outcomes for former youth in care.
Providing the protective effects of education against many of the negative life issues youth in care typically experience can mean the difference between living in poverty and experiencing homelessness or having the chance to contribute to society through employment and other forms of social engagement.
The right to education
A 2019 report about youth in and from care and the right to education from Maytree, an organization dedicated to ending poverty in Ontario, offers recommendations for the provincial government. These include the naming of education as a human right and as an organizing principle within the Ministry of Education. The report also calls for all levels of government to work together to ensure the voices of youth in and from care are heard in relation to their unique challenges and experiences in the education system.
The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) notes that Indigenous people have inherent and treaty rights to education, but both the AFN and other Indigenous education advocates note federal funding has not met the demand for post-secondary funding.
In 2013, the Ontario-based Youth Leaving Care Working Group called for Children’s Aid Societies, the province and post-secondary institutions to work together to provide increased financial support for youth in and from care.
Both the right to education and education as a human right are well accepted in a number of international covenants, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and yet Canada is falling behind in ensuring secondary and higher education are accessible to all.
Lower educational achievement
Youth who have been in care, on average, have lower educational achievement, higher rates of unemployment, greater likelihood of homelessness and more involvement in criminal justice systems. Many experience worse health and social outcomes overall throughout their lives than youth not in care. Those who age out of care often struggle to find a place to live, a job and a sense of belonging.
These issues have a number of significant, lifelong economic, health and social implications for the individual and for society as a whole. Former youth in care are less likely to have graduated from high school or to complete post-secondary education than their non-fostered peers. This has direct implications for underemployment and unemployment rates.
As noted in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal No. 4, education must be inclusive, equitable and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all). The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) also notes under Sustainable Development Goal No. 5 (Achieve Gender Equality) that in an effort to achieve gender equality, women and girls need access to education at all levels.
Reducing financial barriers
The aim behind the development of tuition waiver programs for former youth in care is to help to increase social mobility by reducing financial barriers to post-secondary education.
While several tuition waiver programs have been in existence for a number of years, the actual number of post-secondary institutions offering this concrete solution across the country remains quite low: Child Welfare Political Action Committee Canada, a charity that advocates for the futures of those who have experience with the child welfare system, identifies 30 such programs in Canada. There is variability in terms of eligibility criteria among these existing programs in different provinces across Canada. Still, these programs are an important mechanism to help reduce structural barriers among populations who have been historically under-represented in post-secondary education.
One important dimension of tuition waiver programs is supporting former youth in care both financially and socially to complete post-secondary education without an age cap. The social aspects of these programs can include offering greater supports from social workers, counselling services, allied health care providers, peer mentors and poverty reduction initiatives.
Social support is an important consideration in that many former youth in care may not be ready for post-secondary education once they age out of care. This may result in older cohorts of former youth in care looking at post-secondary education options later in life than those who don’t have experience in the care system.
‘Wraparound’ supports put students at centre
If we truly want to see former youth in care thrive and not simply survive, we need to do more to increase access to post-secondary education. Collectively, we can reduce financial barriers as well as social and other barriers by offering “wrap-around” supports — those that place the student at the centre to identify their needs, such as assistance in locating housing, navigating the course selection process and ensuring required registration paperwork is completed.
While tuition waivers help address financial barriers to former youth in care, institutions must also address structural issues (such as racism, homophobia and gender-based discrimination and sexism). Efforts to offer safer, more welcoming and affirming spaces for learning can be bolstered through supports specific to particular student populations, such as queer-straight alliances.
Greater leadership needed
In addition, we need to see greater leadership from both within the post-secondary education sector as well as in foster care settings across Canada to ensure we aren’t continuing the cycle of poor health, social and economic outcomes among vulnerable segments of the population.
Canada clearly needs to place a greater emphasis on access to education as a key determinant of health and as a human right. The decisions we make on this issue today will have generational effects that we will all have to reconcile in the future.