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Vancouver Island University waives tuition fees for former government wards

Vancouver Island University is in the media spotlight after the administration announced a tuition waiver for a small percentage of kids in the province's child protection system.

Spokesperson Janina Stajic said the program will allow former wards of the government to have their tuition paid for, and that they may still apply for other assistance grants to cover living expenses. The university has not budgeted for a certain number of students applying for the waiver, Stajic said, but is "waiting to see what the response is going to be."

To qualify, the student must have been a permanent ward of the province. In B.C., there are 4,298 kids and teens under a "continuing care order" from birth to 18 years old. Wards represent about half of kids in the foster care system at any one time, and are a small minority of kids involved in the entire system -- there are about 30,000 open files with B.C.'s Child Protection Services.

In other words, one in 12 kids in the system may qualify for the waiver.

Of kids who are permanent wards of the province, less than half graduate from high school.

The university's effort follows in the footsteps of the University of Winnipeg, which announced a similar program in March 2012. At press time, U of W had not confirmed whether any students have claimed the offer so far. In June, Ontario expanded its free tuition program to all public universities and several community colleges. In Arizona this June, representatives extended free tuition for foster kids at the three state universities. Utah, Texas, Florida, and Oregon all offer former wards at least some free tuition.

In B.C., the province offers wards a postsecondary grant called YEAF, the Youth Education Assistance Fund. It offers up to $5,500 a year for up to four years, an amount that doesn't cover the total costs of going to school.

About 300 former wards per year get a YEAF grant, and the Ministry of Children and Family Development does not keep data on how many of these youth graduate from their postsecondary programs. The 300 grants represent about five per cent of the 5,500 former kids in care and on youth agreements who are between the ages of 19 and 24.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, B.C.'s Representative for Children and Youth and the most prominent advocate for youth in care, challenged B.C.'s postsecondary institutions to offer tuition waivers earlier this year. She has been an enthusiastic supporter of VIU's initiative.

Pieta Woolley reports on solutions to breaking the link between foster care and youth homelessness for The Tyee Solutions Society. This article was produced by Tyee Solutions Society in collaboration with Tides Canada Initiatives (TCI), with funding from the Vancouver Foundation. TCI and the Vancouver Foundation neither influence nor endorse the particular content of TSS' reporting. Other publications wishing to publish this story or other Tyee Solutions Society-produced articles, please see this website for contacts and information.

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