Young Minnesotans who spent time in the foster care system and want to attend college will soon be able to do so without worry of how to afford it.

Starting in fall 2022, a new state grant program will help cover their college tuition, room and board and other associated expenses. Advocates believe the program created by the Legislature will help level the playing field by giving these students the resources they need to pursue a degree.

"With this bill, the possibilities of whatever career I could want in the future expands from … a two-year degree to a four-year degree," said Abigail Hackbarth, 19, a student at Ridgewater College in Hutchinson who receives extended foster care services.

Hackbarth originally hoped to pursue a teaching degree at the University of Minnesota but could not afford the $3,200 she would have had to pay out of pocket. With the new grant program, "I can choose to go to the U of M if I wanted to," she said.

Minnesotans younger than 27 who were in foster care while they were 13 or older will be eligible for the grants. About 4,900 Minnesota teens were in foster care in 2018, according to the state's most recent data.

Former foster care youth pursuing higher education encounter a slew of barriers that are often hard to overcome, from household instability to a lack of financial and emotional support. Only about half of foster care youth graduate from high school and far fewer — roughly 3% — obtain a college degree, according to the National Foster Youth Institute.

Teens currently or formerly in foster care who attend college may receive enough grants and scholarships to cover their tuition; those in foster care while they were 16 or older are eligible for additional aid — a higher education voucher of up to $5,000 per year. But the total aid they receive often is not enough to pay for both their tuition and living expenses.

That is why the lawmakers and advocates who created the Minnesota grant program made sure it covered students' full cost of attendance. The grants will pay for any remaining costs of tuition, room and board, meals, or fees that are not covered by scholarships and traditional state and federal aid.

"You can give somebody money to go to school, but if they can't survive in the everyday part of their lives, they're not going to do well," said state Rep. Kaohly Vang Her, DFL-St. Paul, who authored the bill in the House. "We have to give them the wraparound services in order for them to make it."

Qualifying students can receive the grants for up to three years if they are seeking a two-year degree and up to five years if they are pursuing a bachelor's degree.

The grant program will receive about $3.8 million in state funding per year.

"We went from a state that did almost nothing, very little for fosters, to the very top of the pile in our support for fosters attending college," said Hoang Murphy, founder and executive director of Foster Advocates, a nonprofit that helped create the new law. "We're now the most progressive state when it comes to college affordability for fosters."

About three dozen states offer tuition waivers or scholarships to students who have been in foster care. But most state programs have limitations and do not go as far as Minnesota in covering both tuition and living expenses, Murphy said.

Private colleges can opt into the program. The grants cover costs up to the full price of Minnesota's most expensive public university. Participating private colleges costing more than that must waive or cover any remaining expenses for these students.

Travis Matthews, an incoming freshman at Hamline University who receives extended foster care support, hopes his private college will participate. His bill to attend Hamline this coming year totals about $51,000, including tuition, campus housing and other costs. After grants and scholarships were applied, he said he had about $10,000 left to cover with loans. Through the grant program, Matthews likely would not have to borrow another dime as an undergraduate.

"That gives me a peace of mind because graduate school and law school, those are things that will not be covered by the state grant. I want to be able to use loans for those," said Matthews, 19, who will double major in legal studies and political science. He hopes to do public policy work related to foster care and juvenile justice.

Minnesota's Office of Higher Education will be tasked with getting the word out about the new program. It must provide messaging materials for state colleges and social services agencies to distribute.

Murphy wants county and state agencies to send notices to every foster youth who is eligible. "It's going to take time to tell people about this and to do it right," he said.

Her hopes the grant program could pave the way for the state to one day cover college costs for every child who has gone through the foster care system, regardless of the age they entered it.

"When you think about the trauma that children who end up in the foster care system [experienced] … I think this is the least we can do to support them," she said.

Ryan Faircloth • 612-673-4234

Twitter: @ryanfaircloth