Program launched to allow current and former foster children opportunities to attend McMaster University tuition-free for undergraduate and graduate degrees
Although there are many benefits to receiving post-secondary education, many Canadians are not able to attend university or college, due to financial barriers. Current and former foster children are particularly underrepresented in Canadian post-secondary institutions.
McMaster University is attempting to address this inequality by setting aside 20 places for current and former foster children to attend university tuition-free, starting in the fall 2021 semester. This initiative has been launched in partnership with Child Welfare PAC, an organization that aims to support and uplift those who have been and are currently in foster care.
Associate Vice President (Students and Learning) and Dean of Students at McMaster University, Sean Van Koughnett, explained that many of the details of this initiative are still being decided, specifically regarding the fees that this initiative will cover.
“We’re trying to figure out how best to support these students,” Van Koughnett explained. “If they have an OSAP grant covering tuition, we want to find other ways to support them. We don’t want to just cut it off at tuition,” Van Koughnett added.
Jane Kovarikova, founder of Child Welfare PAC, explained the importance of post-secondary education in helping current and former foster children to thrive.
“We know, scientifically, that the only evidence-based pathway that levels life outcomes for foster children compared to their same-age peers is post-secondary credentials,” Kovarikova said.
According to Kovarikova, the idea to waive tuition fees for those who have been in foster care originated in British Columbia. Vancouver Island University implemented this program in 2013 and later reached out to Child Welfare PAC to make them aware of it. Since then, Child Welfare PAC has helped bring this initiative to post-secondary schools across the country.
Van Koughnett explained that McMaster announced a new access strategy in 2019 and has since been looking for ways to support students from underrepresented groups.
“We’re always trying to find ways to increase access. . . We felt that [this initiative] aligns perfectly with some of the other things we’re trying to do at the university,” Van Koughnett said.
According to Van Koughnett, this initiative will affect future McMaster students, as well as current students.
“There are a number of details that we still have to work out, but we have already had inquiries from current students who came through the [foster care] system, and we would like to support them as well,” Van Koughnett explained.
Giving more post-secondary opportunities to current and former foster children has the potential to benefit other underrepresented communities as well. For example, it may increase access among Indigenous students, as Indigenous children are overrepresented in the foster care system.
One important aspect of this initiative, as Kovarikova explained, is that it does not have any age restrictions.
“When you leave foster care at age 18, you face really difficult, traumatic circumstances. . . Life can be really complicated in the early years, so you might not be hitting the life milestones at the exact same time as your peers,” Kovarikova said.
In contrast, Kovarikova noted, most government programs aimed at this population will have an upper age limit. Further, according to Kovarikova, university policies are both more effective and more stable.
“When governments do this type of thing, they lose every four to eight years, so you have to fight for the policy again, whereas institutions are there permanently,” Kovarikova explained.
Though the institutional approach offers more permanency, the program is not yet widespread as each individual institution must adopt the program.
Kovarikova emphasized that even a small number of places, such as the 20 at McMaster, at each post-secondary institution available to current and former foster children will be extremely impactful.
“If every [school offers a few places], then the opportunities will be available everywhere, and no one will have to leave their community,” Kovarikova said.
McMaster’s move to eliminate tuition fees for current and former foster children will make it the eighth school in Ontario and the first school in the greater Toronto and Hamilton area to do so.
Further, Kovarikova explained that many participating institutions have only provided current and former foster children with tuition-free undergraduate-level opportunities.
However, McMaster has also provided them with the chance to attend graduate-level programs without tuition fees.