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Charis Glatthar, 39, lived in 14 homes in four years as a teenager and is now working toward a degree at Metropolitan State University of Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Charis Glatthar became a foster kid at age 14, then lived in 14 homes in four years. She lost track of how many schools she attended. 

When Glatthar aged out of the child welfare system, she hoped she could go to college, but had no money and no clue about how to apply for financial aid. She’s been trying to catch up ever since. 

Now 39 and a student at Metropolitan State University of Denver, Glatthar has been attending college on and off since 2004, starting with community college and then working toward a bachelor’s degree at MSU Denver, all the while working as a barista, in retail, at the Colorado Convention Center and on campus as a chemistry research assistant. Her health issues, including recently losing her eyesight, have forced Glatthar to take time off from college, but the biggest obstacle to earning a degree has been financial. 

A plan to provide free tuition at community colleges, state universities and trade schools for kids who grew up in Colorado’s foster care system comes about 20 years too late for Glatthar. Still, she can’t help but think about how it could have changed her life.

“Gosh, I would have been done a long time ago,” she said.

Charis Glatthar, 39, lived in 14 homes in four years as a teenager and is now working toward a degree at Metropolitan State University of Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

A legislative effort, led by Democrats but with at least some Republican support, would require public higher education institutions to waive tuition for young people who were in the foster care system. The plan is projected to cost about $700,000 per year, evenly split between state taxpayers and colleges and universities, according to the current draft of the bill.

It would require high schools to notify foster students that they’re eligible for free tuition, and would require that a navigator at the Colorado Department of Higher Education help them apply. The bill also requires that higher education institutions designate an employee to serve as a liaison to prospective students in foster care. Students would have to first apply for federal financial aid and for a scholarship specifically for foster children, through the Chafee program in Colorado, that provides up to about $5,000.  

“The state of Colorado owes this to our foster youth,” said Sen. Rachel Zenzinger, an Arvada Democrat and prime sponsor of the bill. “We are their parent.” 

Children in the foster care system are the least likely of any demographic to attend college in Colorado. Only about 30% of foster teens graduate from high school in four years. Of those, just 13% enroll in college by age 21. 

Nationwide, 3% of teens who age out of foster care, meaning they were not adopted or returned to their families, earn an associate’s degree or higher. 

“This is despicable,” Zenzinger said during the bill’s first hearing at the Capitol, where it passed 5-2 in the Senate Education Committee.

Metropolitan State University has a model program to help kids who aged out of foster care succeed in college, though the school could help many more students if tuition were waived, said Miguel Huerta, director of a campus program called Epic Scholars, which is for former foster youth and other students who have no family support. 

Each semester, 150-200 students under age 24 at MSU Denver fill out their federal financial aid documents as independents. They are former foster kids, orphans, students living in the country without parents and those who were homeless in high school. 

Charis Glatthar, 39, lived in 14 homes in four years as a teenager and is now working toward a degree at Metropolitan State University of Denver. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Huerta’s program, though, has 53 slots. Students who join Epic Scholars get help finding subsidized housing, applying for food assistance, filling out forms for financial aid and scholarships, and they support each other by gathering for outings, including bowling and hiking. Sometimes, students are referred to the program not because they already have independent status on their federal student aid application, but because a professor learned they were sleeping in their car and had no parents to help them, Huerta said. Six participants graduated last semester. 

If tuition were covered by the university and the state, and foster kids knew about the opportunity in high school, more would enroll, he said. 

“It would make this option more visible,” said Huerta, also the assistant director of community engagement and programs at MSU’s Student Care Center. “More people would be telling foster youth that they could go to college. We should be doing everything we can for former foster youth who have had so many struggles. They deserve the opportunity.”

Other universities in the state, including the University of Colorado, Mesa State University and the University of Northern Colorado, support the measure. 

Republican Senators Paul Lundeen, of Monument, and Barbara Kirkmeyer, of Weld County, voted against the proposal. Lundeen said he appreciates the goals of the bill, but is opposed to mandating that colleges waive tuition. People, not policy, change other people’s lives, he said. 

“I perceive the need,” Lundeen said. “I do not perceive this as the optimized policy response.” 

Each year in Colorado, about 200 teens and young adults leave the foster care system to live on their own. About 4,000 children are now in foster placements across the state.

Legislative analysts project that about 4,500 students in Colorado would be eligible for the scholarship each year, about that about 15% of them would attend college. 

Eligible young people, according to the proposal, are those placed in foster care in Colorado after their 13th birthday or were the subject of a court ruling of child abuse and neglect case at any age. 

Tori Shuler, now director of advocacy at a nonprofit that helps foster children, is among the 3% of former foster kids who graduated from college. The week she entered foster care for the second time, at age 16, a teacher tried to comfort her by saying that she could go to college for free. The teacher was wrong.

“That myth exists,” Shuler told the committee. “Colorado is one of 15 states that has not sent its foster children to college and that is shameful.”

Most states, including California, Texas, Illinois and Florida, have tuition waiver programs for kids who grew up in foster care, and many passed their laws years ago, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. 

Shuler, with Fostering Great Ideas, got through college by working two jobs and taking out student loans. Her federal Pell Grant barely covered books, let alone tuition, she said. She wanted to attend law school, but couldn’t afford it. 

“Foster children are the most marginalized group in education and we all want to do something about it,” Shuler said. “This is what we can do.” 

Update: This story was updated Feb. 15 to clarify eligibility rules of the proposal under the current draft of the bill.

Jennifer Brown writes about mental health, the child welfare system, the disability community and homelessness for The Colorado Sun. As a former Montana 4-H kid, she also loves writing about agriculture and ranching. Brown previously...