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Bill Promises Wisconsin Foster Kids Free College Tuition

MADISON, Wi. — A bipartisan group of Wisconsin legislators has proposed waiving tuition and fees for foster children attending University of Wisconsin schools and state technical colleges, saying the children lack a permanent family when they age out of the foster system and need help to succeed.

The measure would cost the state hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition reimbursements and grants over the next two years and still result in the UW System losing tens of thousands of dollars annually, according to fiscal estimates. Still, more than a third of the Legislature’s 132 members have signed onto the bill as co-sponsors.

The Assembly’s universities committee is expected to approve the measure Thursday, clearing the way for a full vote in that chamber.

“When (foster children) age out of the system, they sometimes have no support,” the bill’s chief sponsor, Republican Rep. Todd Novak, said. “They end up either in the workforce or they end up in trouble. This is an incentive to get into school. It gives them something to strive for in high school.”

Twenty-eight other states already offer some form of post-secondary tuition assistance for foster children. Eight states provide grants or scholarships to defray tuition costs; 20 states waive tuition at varying levels.

The bill calls for eliminating tuition and fees at UW schools and state technical colleges for state residents who lived in an out-of-home placement for at least a year after turning 13; were adopted or appointed a guardian after turning 13 or were in an out-of-home placement on his or her 18th birthday. People who fit those parameters would be eligible for free tuition and fees for 12 semesters or until he or she attains a degree or reaches age 25.

The Higher Educational Aids Board would get $410,000 annually to reimburse UW and technical colleges for the lost revenue.

The bill also calls for the state Department of Children and Families to distribute $120,000 over each biennium to fund four grants of up to $30,000 each to develop programs to help former foster children at UW schools and technical colleges.

The UW System estimates as many as 4,613 people between the ages of 18 and 24 could be eligible for free tuition and fees. The system estimates 5.5 percent of those eligible will enroll in a UW school and about 12 percent will enroll in a technical college. That means UW schools would lose about $260,000 annually while collecting only about $130,000 in reimbursements, according to the system’s fiscal estimate.

System officials said the estimate may be underestimating the amount of lost tuition and fees. They also noted their figures don’t account for scholarships and financial aid foster children might receive that would reduce the amount of tuition they would owe, in turn reducing the schools’ lost revenue.

UW System President Ray Cross said in a statement Monday that the system fully supports the bill because it gives foster children easier access to higher education. Wisconsin Technical College System spokesman Conor Smyth said the system supports the bill as another way to help more people gain jobs skills and help employers fill vacancies.

Novak said the cost amounts to relatively tiny numbers in the grand scheme of state finances.

“And what’s our payback going to be?” he said. “What’s it cost to keep someone in jail or prison? If we can get them on the right track early and get them into school, it’s going to make a big difference.”

No groups have registered in opposition to the bill. Three groups have registered in support: Lutheran Social Services of Wisconsin and Upper Michigan, Wisconsin Association of Family and Children’s Agencies and the Wisconsin Technical College District Boards Association. The Wisconsin Association of Independent Colleges and Universities has registered as neutral on the proposal.

The bill is one of 13 proposals from Assembly Speaker Robin Vos’ foster care task force, making it likely the proposal will clear that house before the legislative session ends this spring. Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald’s spokesman, Dan Romportl, said Fitzgerald hasn’t reviewed the bill yet.

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